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What is a no-fly zone? And why does the Ukrainian president want one?

An aerial view on the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/file

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Wednesday for the United States to do more to help his embattled country defend against a Russian invasion.

One of his requests in a video address to Congress was for the United States to help establish a “humanitarian no-fly zone,” saying it would save lives and prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from being “able to terrorize our free cities.”

Here’s what you need to know about the possibility of a no-fly zone in Ukraine.

What is a no-fly zone?

A no-fly zone is a designated area where all or certain types of aircraft - military aircraft, for example - are banned from flying. It can also involve preventive attacks on the banned aircraft when they’re parked or the runways they take off from.


“It’s a declaration by one entity, one side that says, ‘We are not going to permit you to fly in this airspace,’” said Scott Cooper, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who co-authored, “The Strategy and Politics of No-Fly Zones.”

Have no-fly zones been used before?

No-fly zones are a relatively recent invention. They were used for the first time by the US and allies in 1991 in Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War. They’ve also been used by the US and NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Libya.

What is a humanitarian no-fly zone?

Humanitarian, or limited, no-fly zones are generally interpreted to mean zones that provide protection for humanitarian corridors negotiated by Ukraine and Russia to evacuate civilians from besieged cities and to send in food, medicines and other basic supplies.

What are the arguments for a no-fly zone?

No-fly zones in the past have been proposed as ways to protect civilian populations from air attack. Proponents cite the death and destruction wreaked by Russia as reasons for taking control of the skies.


Zelensky said Wednesday, “Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.”

What are the arguments against a no-fly zone?

The problem with establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine is that it raises the specter of US or NATO pilots firing on pilots from Russia, a country that has nuclear weapons. Critics say that could dangerously escalate the conflict.

So far, Cooper warned, the US “has pitched a no-hitter every time” with no shootdowns while enforcing no-fly zones, but that would likely change against a well-armed Russia. And with Russia, he said, “the risk is there of Armageddon.”

Will a no-fly zone happen?

The Biden administration has resisted the idea of a no-fly zone, arguing that it could inflame tensions and risk a broader global conflict. The idea also has little bipartisan support in Congress. But the United States is sending billions in new aid to Ukraine.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.

Martin Finucane can be reached at