Tom Enders is the president of DGAP (the German Council on Foreign Relations) and a former CEO of Airbus.
This weekend’s Russian airstrikes against targets near the Polish, Slovak, Hungarian and Romanian borders in far western Ukraine have given new impetus to calls for the creation of a no-fly zone in the country.
Citing fears of nuclear escalation, the United States, NATO and the European Union have rejected Ukraine’s request for blanket protection from Russia’s aerial attacks. But there is a more limited version of the proposal that should not be off the table.
It is one thing to threaten Russian President Vladimir Putin with shooting down Russian aircraft all across Ukrainian territory — including near Russian territory and Russian air bases. Implementing such an expansive no-fly zone would not only be extremely costly; it would also be seen as confrontational, and it would be barely achievable by NATO air forces deployed today — at least if Turkey did not participate, which is to be assumed.
It would be a much lesser challenge, however, to close Ukrainian airspace to Russian fighters near NATO’s eastern borders. Such a move would be both tactically and operationally feasible from air bases in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania — where existing forces could be reinforced by units from other NATO partners, including the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany, which already has Eurofighters stationed in Romania.
In addition, Patriot and French SAMP/T air-to-surface defense system batteries stationed near the border could cover large portions of western Ukrainian airspace. Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and, of course, the U.S. have Patriot systems, which have effective missile ranges of more than 100 kilometers.
The establishment of such a no-fly zone over six to eight western oblasts of Ukraine would not just provide much needed military support to the Ukrainian forces on the ground; it will soon be imperative from a humanitarian and logistical point of view.
If the West stands idly by while Putin’s air force indiscriminately shoots up refugee convoys, aid organizations and Ukrainian troops within sight of NATO borders, it would be a moral disaster from which the “free West” would hardly ever recover.
Even if one sets aside moral considerations, a no-fly zone in western Ukraine would help prevent the war from spreading uncontrollably into NATO territory by giving the aggressor a clear “so far and no further!” message — at least in terms of air battle.
Would Putin then escalate further and attack NATO countries in the east or the Baltic, even use nuclear weapons? This is still very unlikely, especially since the West would not be attacking Russian territory — only Russian aircraft, cruise missiles and missiles in Ukrainian airspace.
Establishing such a no-fly zone over western Ukraine is not just feasible; it is necessary. It is time for the West to expose Putin’s nuclear threats for what they really are — a bluff to deter Western governments from military intervention.