10.05.2024 Author: Henry Kamens

No Fly Zone for Ukraine is a “No Go” for the West: Zelensky “Huffs and Puffs” and then Fumes

No Fly Zone for Ukraine is a “No Go” for the West: Zelensky “Huffs and Puffs” and then Fumes

After the US and the UK closed the skies over Israel from incoming, Zelensky asks why they cannot do this for Ukraine. I think that in general they could try to do this in the future as a last resort, but only for a limited area, and maybe not even then. Now, and into the foreseeable future, any proactive move depends on how events in Ukraine develop, and the end, for Ukraine, is near.

Volodymyr Zelensky is now calling for the West to provide similar resolve in protecting Ukrainian airspace against Russian attacks, arguing that the example of Israel shows that NATO membership is not necessary for a country to be defended in this way.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian leadership, or those who seized power in 2014, are anxious as to their plight, and any speculation that if NATO [and other close] countries had helped Israel fend off the Iranian combined drone and missile attack results in the question –  Why can’t they do the same for Ukraine?

Friendly Skies

Zelensky’s assertion hints at a potential precedent for future actions, contingent upon the unfolding developments in Ukraine. The closure of skies over Israel serves as a practical demonstration of how such measures could be implemented elsewhere, contingent upon technology, diplomatic and strategic imperatives.

Left High and Dry

However, behind the scenes, a nuanced geopolitical calculus is at play and an exit strategy, which will leave a rump Ukraine high and dry. While Western powers seek to exert pressure on Russia, there’s a cautious restraint aimed at avoiding its complete destabilization. The specter of a collapsed political system in Russia, with ensuing fragmentation of the country into more manageable chunks, looms large, the wishful thinking of neo-cons, however, if their wet dream would come true, what would be the fate of Russia’s formidable nuclear arsenal?

Elephant in the Room

These ideas ignore the elephant in the room, one made clear by Putin, that if Russia is in danger of losing its sovereignty and territorial integrity, the fate of Russia’s nuclear arsenal will be to be expended on its enemy’s cities.

As events continue to unfold in Ukraine and the wider region, these complex dynamics will undoubtedly shape the trajectory of international relations and security strategies now and into the nearest future.

These fantasies of Zelensky and his Neocon puppet masters to instigate a NATO led “NoFly” zone over Ukraine also run into a number of serious issues in reality. The first is the integrated and highly capable Russian integrated air defense system.

Unlike western militaries, who primarily rely on fighter aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the European mainstay, and the US F-15C, F-22, and now the much troubled F-35 for air superiority, the Russians have continued to use and improve the system inherited from the USSR, which integrates radar and infra-red guided surface-to-air missiles and guns with their highly capable fighter fleet, all controlled, like the US form Airborne Warning and Control Systems (The E-3 Sentry for the West, and the A-50 for the Russians, known as AWACS).

The US system relies on fighter and strike aircraft attacking enemy bases after cruise missiles “soften up” the air defences, with fighter planes taking out the few enemy aircraft that make it into the sky. This system worked well in Iraq, in both 1991 and 2004, against an enemy that was relatively poorly trained and equipped, and massively outnumbered. It has never been successfully implemented, or even tried, against a peer level opponent.

Due to this, NATO air defence systems such as the Patriot and IRIS-T are rare, and very hard to replace. The Patriot system is staggeringly expensive as well, at up to eight million dollars per missile, depending on the version being fired, and has failed to protect Ukraine from the missile strikes frequently launched by the Russian military.

The Russian’s on the other hand, use an integrated approach to air superiority, with plentiful, and highly effective, SAM systems such as the S-300, 400, and the new S-500 covering mobile SAM and AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery) units down to Battalion level along the front lines, with ranges up to 500km for the new S-500, which is also capable of intercepting ballistic missiles.

The S-400 and S-500 systems have also proven adept at destroying the much-vaunted US HIMARS systems, the Anglo-French Storm Shadow missile, and even guided bombs such as the US JDAM. The long reach of these SAM systems also has proven deadly to Ukrainian attempts to intercept the Russian Su-34 fighter bombers launching the Russian guided bombs that have rained down on the defences of each Ukrainian “fortress city” from Mariupol, through Bakhmut, and now Chasov Yar.

Even if a missile launch does not result in a kill, they almost invariably force the attacking Ukrainian fighter to abort its mission and run for safety.

And what about fighter-to-fighter combat? One thing that has become apparent recently, is that western developments in air-to-air missiles stopped in the early 2000s, under the assumption there would never be any serious threat to the USAF’s superiority. Something that is definitely not the case—and now compare the longest-range missiles in each potential combatant’s arsenal.

In the blue corner, the AIM-120 AMRAAM, which in its early versions has a range of 105km, and the later versions 160km against large targets, and potentially half that against smaller targets, with a top speed of Mach 4. In the Red corner, we have the R-77 (the equivalent of the AMRAAM) with a range between 80 and 190 km depending on the version and a top speed of Mach 4.5, so far, honors about even. But the kick to the teeth comes from the real “king of the missiles” today, the R-37 Vympel, which comes in two versions, the R-37, with a range of over 200km, and the newer R-37M, with a range of around 400km, with the real killer being its top speed of Mach 6, giving the enemy little time to react or take evasive action. Designed to kill the AWACS and air-to-air refueling aircraft such as the KC-135 and KC-10, it has an extremely powerful warhead, and is fully self-guiding.

Capable of being launched from the MiG-31 and Su-35, the missile is a real game changer, with over twice the effective range of any western missile. In combination with the phased array radars both of these aircraft are equipped with, the missile is capable of striking targets flying as low as 50 feet from an altitude of 60,000 feet.

The situation is made worse by the poor serviceability of the new flagship of NATO aviation, the F-35, with its staggering price, and limited availability, with only 51% of airframes fleet wide being fully combat capable, a number that gets worse when you dig deeper, into the individual services. There are also concerns that the F-35 may be more detectable than originally thought, and one should remember the fact that the Serbians were able to shoot down one supposedly undetectable F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter and damage another beyond economical repair in 1999 with the rather elderly S-125 SAM system.

And then there is the small matter of how the Russians will react, NATO is banking on a Russian climb-down, something that is, in my opinion, a simply stupid belief. The conflict in Ukraine is existential for Russia; they have shown this time and again since 2022.

Standoff of technologies

The Russians have repeatedly negated and neutralized advanced weapons systems from artillery, to HIMARS rockets and the Patriot and IRIS-T SAM systems, and the once lauded (but now forgotten) Bayraktar drones. Western “super tanks” such as the Leopard 2, Challenger 2, and M1A1 burned in the fields. There is no reason to assume that they will fail to do so against western air power, be it flown by Ukrainians, or their NATO masters.

Finally, the Russians have already warned that they would strike any NATO base being used to fly Ukrainian crewed F-16s in the conflict. Does anyone think that they would fail to strike western bases being used for a No-Fly zone? The Khinzal hypersonic missile will be ready to teach NATO a lesson, I suspect.

With Congress passing the Ukraine aid bill, the US is now poised to raid its NATO stockpile in Germany, further depleting its reserves, in another mad attempt to delay the inevitable.

It is as if the collective West, mostly led blindly down the yellow brick road by the US and its elite political class, has found itself between a rock and hard place, especially when facing elections. Currently, ruling parties, especially in the US, Germany and Poland to a lesser degree, fully understand the voters may toss them out of office in the nearest future.

Do they really think starting a larger armed conflict war in Europe will endear them to the voters?


Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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