In today's Finshots we see the implications of imposing a no-fly zone over the Ukrainian airspace

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The Story

On 16th March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the US Congress in a virtual forum. It was a sobering admission of the reality Ukraine faces today, but also a plea to the nation’s lawmakers. He said and we quote — “Is this a lot to ask, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people?”

It’s a request he’s been making for a while now — “Close the skies or give us planes.’

Now to be fair, the US has most definitely acted on Ukraine’s behalf. They’ve aided the war effort in many ways by sharing intelligence and imposing sanctions. They’ve also offered anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. And just yesterday, they announced that they’d send 100 armed drones to “deliver a punch”.

But the no-fly zone? Well, that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming despite massive public support.

So isn’t the American sentiment large enough to sway the administration? Under usual circumstances, it would have. The problem here is that the people that do advocate for a no-fly zone may not truly understand what it entails.

Take a look at this poll by Economist/YouGov poll. It found that 40% of the Americans wanted the US to declare a no-fly zone. But when asked how many people would endorse shooting down a Russian aircraft over Ukraine…only 31% were approving of such a drastic move.

In summary, the poll results would have been hilarious if we weren’t in the middle of a real war.

So, what exactly is the no-fly zone?

Well, it’s pretty similar to planting a pole in the ground with a message in bold that screams, “trespassers will be prosecuted.”

That is to say, once the no-fly zone is imposed, the Ukrainian airspace is off-limits for all aircraft. Nobody can enter. And while it may seem like a drastic measure, it’s pretty common actually. We have a no-fly zone over the Indian parliament. We have a no-fly zone near the Prime Minister’s residence and there’s a no-fly zone near the Taj Mahal as well.

But in a war-torn country, the no-fly zone won’t just entail prosecution. The aircraft may be shot out of the sky and blown to smithereens. And that means if the US and its allies (like NATO) declare Ukrainian airspace to be a no-fly zone, then they will shoot down Russian aircraft entering the banned airspace.

Now, obviously, that would mean drawing these countries into the conflict as well. But let’s suppose we look past this eventuality — Will no-fly zones actually work?

Let’s see what history has to tell us. In the past no-fly zones have been imposed during multiple conflicts — When Iraq targeted certain sections of its population in 1991 when the Serbian attacked Bosnia in 1993 and during the Libyan civil war of 2011. But none of those countries boasts Russia’s military strength. Its airforce is second in size only to the US Air Force and the two countries combined control 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads. Things could quickly spiral out of control.

There’s also another telling fact. None of these no-fly zones have been able to effectively end a war. In Bosnia, 8,000 people (mostly men and boys) were seized and slaughtered, despite a no-fly zone being in force.

The no-fly zone over Iraq lasted for 12 years. And it cost nearly $2 billion every year. The Libyan no-fly zone was projected to cost up to $8 billion over a 6-month period. And in 2013, when calls emerged to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, estimates suggested it could cost $1 billion every month. As you can see, none of this is pocket change.

And even if you ignore all this, there’s something else.

Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, says, “A no-fly zone would also have to be imposed ‘illegally.’ Russia would use its veto on the U.N. Security Council to prevent a resolution that would authorize such a measure, and overriding the [council] would weaken the overwhelming condemnation of Russian aggression among other U.N. member nations.”

Russia has already vetoed a resolution at the UN that would’ve forced it to end its invasion of Ukraine. Another possible veto would only hurt the UN’s look!

So yeah, there’s history, economics, and legalese to ponder for the Western powers when it comes to imposing a no-fly zone against a superpower like Russia. For now, Ukraine might have to make do with American aid — $6.5 billion as military assistance and a further $6.7 billion for refugees fleeing the country.

Until then…

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