A senior Conservative MP has accused the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, of being “misleading and defeatist” after he ruled out imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine amid growing pleas from the invaded country.
Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the defence select committee, said Britain and its Nato allies should have “more confidence in managing these cold war high-stakes scenarios” and urged Wallace and other ministers to “robustly contest” Russian airstrikes.
Ellwood is one of the few senior British politicians to advocate imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which was called for last week by the country’s ambassador to the UK. Wallace said on Wednesday that it risked starting a general war with Russia.
Enforcing a no-fly zone would require “British fighter jets shooting down Russian fighter jets”, Wallace said, and if a British or other Nato jet was lost it “would lead to a war against Russia, across the whole of Europe”, with Nato’s members being obliged to join the conflict. “That is not a position that members of Nato are prepared to go,” he told Sky News.
Reacting to those remarks, Ellwood said: “It is misleading, simplistic and indeed defeatist to suggest engaging in a no-fly zone over Ukraine would automatically lead to a war, even nuclear conflict with Russia” – although he said he recognised the potential for military escalation was real.
He argued it should be possible to face down Russia in the air over Ukraine without starting a wider war. “We should have more confidence in ourselves managing these cold war high-stakes scenarios rather than hesitating only to face up to a bigger battle in the future.”
Russian bombing continued in Ukraine on Wednesday, with US officials warning that Vladimir Putin’s regime had stepped up missile and artillery attacks, although so far Moscow’s use of airstrikes and air power in the week-old war has been surprisingly limited.
Some of Ukraine’s air force, which was widely expected to be swiftly knocked out, remains airborne, with Kyiv claiming on Wednesday that two of its MiG-29 fighters knocked out two Russian Su-35s, for the loss of one of the MiGs.
Most independent commentators agree a no-fly zone is too risky now that Russia has declared war. But Keir Giles, a fellow at Chatham House, said he believed the opportunity had been missed and a no-fly zone could have implemented before the invasion, “possibly even preventing it” because Nato forces would have been “arriving in peaceful skies to keep Russia out”. He added: “Now you would have to fight your way in.”
Wallace also said a no-fly zone would stop Ukrainian pilots being able to target Russia from the air, giving an advantage to Moscow, which has stronger ground troops and tanks. “If you had a no-fly zone in Ukraine, the overwhelming scale of the Russian army would be able to drive around with impunity, which it can’t at the moment,” he said.
Wallace said a convoy of Russian tanks heading towards Kyiv was moving so slowly because of logistical problems and low morale. However, he said the faltering progress of troops could lead to more aerial bombardment from Russia, and there was a risk that of Putin’s “brutality increasing” as his efforts were stalling.
“The Russians are considerably behind their schedule, by days not hours, and that leads to stresses on their logistical supply chains,” he told the BBC. “That’s why you have seen some of these columns fairly grind to a halt. They have also been surprised by the strength of the Ukrainian resistance.”
Wallace said Russia would face “years of resistance” if it sought to occupy Ukraine.
Russian troops have entered Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, after days of intensive bombardment, but Wallace said Putin’s forces did not yet control it.
Boris Johnson later spoke to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, condemning the “abhorrent attacks on Ukraine in recent hours and days”, Downing Street said.
“The prime minister told President Zelenskiy that the UK was rallying UN general assembly members today to ensure the strongest possible condemnation of Russia at this afternoon’s UN meeting in New York,” a No 10 spokesperson said.