Zelenskyy asked U.S. Congress to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine. What does that mean?

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked a no-fly zone be put in place over Ukraine.
  • A no-fly zone would prohibit Russian aircrafts from entering Ukraine by means of combat.
  • NATO is reluctant to do so, noting it would lead to warfare with Russia.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has lasted for nearly four weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy directly asked the United States Congress and President Joe Biden to implement a no-fly zone over his country.

"Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask?" Zelenskyy said virtually on Wednesday. "I can say, I have a need. I need to protect our sky."

Zelenskyy has continuously asked a no-fly zone be put in place over Ukraine since the invasion began, also asking other NATO countries to fulfill his request. 

However, U.S. officials are hesitant to do it. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has put a no-fly zone in place for commercial flights for Ukraine, Belarus and a western portion of Russia, and Biden announced at the State of the Union that he would also ban Russian flights from entering U.S. airspace as the European Union has already decided. But White House officials have stated imposing a military no-fly zone in Ukraine could mean engaging with Russian forces, something military leaders officials are trying attempting to avoid.

Here's what to know about a no-fly zone:

A military plane flies in Russia's Rostov region, about 40 miles from the Ukrainian border and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, on Feb. 27.

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How does a no-fly zone work?

A no-fly zone restricts any aircraft, passenger, carrier or military, from flying over any restricted region. They are often used for any major events as a safety precaution; an example would be the FAA's restrictions and no-drone zone around SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl 56

In the military world, a no-fly zone is put in place to prevent aircraft from carrying out attacks or performing surveillance on an area. The order is enforced by military aircraft, which includes attacking and taking down any aircraft that violate the order.

When have no-fly zones been used before in war?

The U.S. and NATO first implemented no-fly zones in Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War in an attempt to prevent targeted attacks by Saddam Hussein.

The United Nations has twice imposed a no-fly zone, in 1992 over Bosnia and in 2011 in Libya, after military attacks on civilians. 

What doesn't a no-fly zone do?

In the case of Russia, if a no-fly zone were put in place over Ukraine, Russian forces would not have to necessarily obey the order; there is no imaginary forcefield preventing Russian President Vladimir Putin from ordering airstrikes on Ukraine.

Will a no-fly zone lead to military engagement?

All signs indicate a no-fly zone in Ukraine would lead to the U.S. and NATO allies engaging in combat. Russian aircraft have conducted airstrikes that have resulted in hundreds of Ukrainian deaths, so to enforce the no-fly zone, NATO aircraft would have to engage with Russian forces.

In his address to Congress, Zelenskyy offered "an alternative" look at a no-fly zone, saying it would help Ukraine improve its anti-aircraft defense. 

Various world leaders have openly been against the idea in recent weeks. 

When asked about the no-fly zone by Ukrainian journalist Daria Kaleniuk, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said enforcing it would lead to "consequences that would be very difficult to control" and it's "not on the agenda of any NATO country."

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki previously said a no-fly zone could lead to U.S. troops in Ukraine, fighting Russian troops, which could bring war. 

"It would essentially mean the U.S. military would be shooting down planes, Russian planes. That is definitely escalatory. That would potentially put us in a place where we are in a military conflict with Russia. That is not something the president wants to do," Psaki told MSNBC. "We are not going to have a military war with Russia with U.S. troops."

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also told CNN that doing so would "put American troops in danger."

"That means we’re not going to put American troops in the air as well, but we will work with the Ukrainians to give them the ability to defend themselves.”

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.