Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Canadian lawmakers Tuesday to support establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but observers warn such a measure risks triggering a potentially catastrophic nuclear conflict between Russia and NATO.
Addressing Parliament via video link, Zelensky said 97 children have been killed since the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Zelensky asked MPs to imagine how they would feel if Canadian cities were subject to such an attack.
He then reiterated his call for a no-fly zone to help Ukraine counter Russian airstrikes:
“Can you imagine when you call your friends and nations and you ask to please close the sky, close the air space, please stop the bombing? How many more cruise missiles have to fall on our cities until you make this happen?"
A no-fly zone is an area in which certain types of aircraft are prohibited from entering. It requires a commitment from an enforcing military power or alliance to shoot down any banned aircraft that enter the airspace, in this case those belonging to nuclear-armed Russia.
For this reason, the NATO military alliance, which has already been accused by some of worsening regional tensions in the events preceding the current conflict, has so far ruled out enforcing a no-fly zone. Doing so would risk a direct confrontation between Russian and NATO forces, which in turn could escalate into a nuclear war.
While the risk of such a catastrophic escalation is currently very low, said UBC political science professor Allen Sens, a no-fly zone could set in motion a dangerous chain of events.
In previous conflicts, Sens told The Maple, NATO has enforced no-fly zones against combatants with much weaker air forces than Russia’s. But in this case, the measure could trigger an “action-reaction cycle” between two powers with well-equipped armies and nuclear weapons.
“There's no question that one of the risks is that if NATO and or the United States and Russia get into a shooting war over Ukraine, it could escalate up to a general war in Europe, and possibly a nuclear war between the United States and Russia,” Sens explained.
If the conflict escalated to encompass more European countries or went nuclear, said Sens, “none of that helps Ukraine.”
“They very quickly become a side show as other countries look to their own defence and their own military priorities,” he explained.
What Would an Escalation Look Like?
At the onset of Russia’s invasion, Putin warned Western forces they would face “such consequences that you have never encountered in your history" if they tried to intervene. The comments were widely interpreted as an implicit nuclear threat.
While NATO would likely win in an air war against Russia, said Sens, the majority of assaults that are currently causing humanitarian disasters in Ukraine are coming from ground assets like artillery and rocket launchers, some of which are based in Russia.
This means Russia could continue its assault against Ukrainian cities and fire at NATO aircraft if it was forced to retreat from Ukrainian airspace.
“One of the escalatory possibilities is that having won the air war over Ukraine, NATO then decides to strike these ground targets,” Sens explained. “That could mean targeting Russia.”
Russia, in turn, could decide to attack airfields on NATO territory in Eastern Europe. This would trigger NATO’s article five, which states that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.”
Amid such an escalation, Sens said, Putin could decide to use chemical or “tactical” nuclear weapons against targets in Ukraine to “demonstrate resolve and get the West to back down.”
Crossing the “nuclear threshold” in this way, Sens explained, would open up the additional risk of accidents, miscalculations or intentional escalations that could result in more nuclear weapons being used in Europe.
“If that happens, then there is the possibility that the use of nuclear weapons could escalate and become a strategic nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia,” said Sens. “And if that happens, then civilization as we know it is over.”
At the same time, he stressed, this remains an unlikely scenario under the current circumstances.
“Nuclear war is not imminent at this time,” said Sens, “but the problem is when we contemplate a no-fly zone, we are taking that step into a possible escalation ladder.”
Public Response in Canada
Responding to Zelensky’s speech Tuesday, Green Party MP Elizabeth May told the House of Commons in a tearful address that despite desperate calls for a no-fly zone from Ukraine’s Green Party, she could not support such a measure, and called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
“A no-fly zone would risk a wider war, and even a nuclear war,” said May. “We know these reasons are solid even though they ring hollow … We need to invent something now that is effective to stop the war, to stop Putin, to save Ukraine."
She continued, “please God stop the bombs, please let’s have a ceasefire, please leave a pathway for Vladimir Putin to make it to a negotiating table and find a peace.”
Despite warnings of a dangerous escalation, retired Canadian military generals Rick Hillier and Lewis MacKenzie advocated this week for calling Putin’s so-called nuclear “bluff” by imposing a no-fly zone, in comments journalist David Pugliese said amounted to calling for a game of “nuclear chicken.”
Meanwhile, public opinion over imposing a no-fly zone is divided in Canada. According to a Leger poll, 47 per cent support the measure even if it risks escalating the conflict, but more than one-quarter responded with “don’t know” to the question.
Disturbingly, 74 per cent of Canadians think the conflict has the potential to escalate into a world war, and 47 per cent think Putin will use nuclear weapons if the war doesn’t go Russia’s way.
In a statement issued by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute Tuesday, policy analyst Yves Engler said calls for a no-fly zone are “reckless.”
“It would lead to even more devastation for Ukrainians and could lead to cataclysmic nuclear war,” said Engler, who added that Canada’s decision to send weapons to Ukraine also carries dangers.
“Anyone concerned about Ukrainians should consider what the U.S. and its allies did in Afghanistan through the 1980s,” he explained. “They provided the Mujahideen with a continual flow of weapons that helped them deliver a huge blow to Soviet forces but was also catastrophic for Afghans.”
Engler added, “Will sending evermore weapons put a stop to the death and destruction or prolong it?”