Foreign policy experts call for 'limited no-fly zone' over Ukraine

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More than two dozen foreign policy experts have called for the United States and NATO to institute a partial no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would serve as an escalation of the conflict with Russia.

In a letter first reported by Politico on Tuesday morning, the 27 officials urged “the Biden administration, together with NATO allies, to impose a limited No-Fly Zone over Ukraine starting with protection for humanitarian corridors that were agreed upon in talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials on Thursday.”

“NATO leaders should convey to Russian officials that they do not seek direct confrontation with Russian forces, but they must also make clear that they will not countenance Russian attacks on civilian areas,” they added.

Among those who signed the letter were William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO; and Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to both NATO and Russia.

William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, at a rally in support of Ukraine in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20. (Kenny Holston/Getty Images)

While a partial no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes may sound anodyne, it risks the same conclusion that caused a broader action to be rejected by top officials in the U.S. and Europe when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made the ask in the early days of the invasion: shooting down Russian planes and starting a direct war between the U.S. and a nation with an estimated 6,000 nuclear weapons. The U.S. and its allies have implemented multiple no-fly zones in recent decades over countries with much less powerful militaries, such as Bosnia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s, as well as Libya in 2011.

“President Biden and NATO Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg have stated that neither the United States nor NATO will engage Russian forces on the ground in Ukraine,” continued the letter. “What we seek is the deployment of American and NATO aircraft not in search of confrontation with Russia but to avert and deter Russian bombardment that would result in massive loss of Ukrainian lives.”

With hundreds of civilian deaths and a refugee crisis the United Nations is calling the largest since World War II, there has been continued pressure from Ukraine for NATO to intervene. In a New York Times op-ed last week, Zelensky's chief of staff Andriy Yermak called for a no-fly zone while acknowledging what it would mean.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in his office in Kyiv on Monday. (Ukrainian President Office/via Reuters TV/Handout via Reuters)

“We are calling on the West to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine,” Yermak wrote. “We recognize that this would be a serious escalation in the war and that it could bring NATO into direct conflict with Russia. But we firmly believe that Russia won’t stop at just Ukraine, which would potentially drag NATO into this conflict anyway.”

“Close the sky over Ukraine! Close it for all Russian missiles, Russian combat aircraft, for all these terrorists. Make a humanitarian air zone, without rockets, without air bombs,” Zelensky said Sunday via Twitter.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Feb. 28 briefing that implementing such a zone would require “deploying U.S. military to enforce, which would be ... potentially a direct conflict, and potentially a war with Russia, which is something we are not planning to be a part of.” She reiterated the position on Thursday.

“The reason why that has not been a step the president has been willing to take or we have been interested in taking is because a no-fly zone requires implementation,” Psaki told reporters. “It would require, essentially, the U.S. military shooting down Russian planes and prompting a potential direct war with Russia, the exact step that we want to avoid.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the same on Sunday in an interview with NBC News.

A pair of Russian Su-35 fighter jets.
Russian Su-35 fighter jets flying over Russia in November. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

“The president’s been very clear about one thing all along as well, which is we’re not going to put the United States in direct conflict with Russia, not have, you know, American planes flying against Russian planes or our soldiers on the ground in Ukraine, because for everything we’re doing for Ukraine, the president also has a responsibility to not get us into a direct conflict, a direct war with Russia, a nuclear power, and risk a war that expands even beyond Ukraine to Europe,” Blinken said on “Meet the Press.”

“That’s clearly not our interest. What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one,” he said.

In Congress, two Republican legislators — Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — have called for a no-fly zone to be implemented, while Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said on Sunday that the option should be kept on the table.

However, the idea has been nearly unanimously rejected, with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., saying it would mean “World War III” and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., calling the idea “the U.S. and Russia at war. It’s a bad idea and Congress would never authorize it.”

 Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a news conference on March 4. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via Reuters)

“Military equipment for Ukraine, humanitarian support for Ukraine, crippling sanction on Russia, movement of U.S. troops to the eastern flank of NATO — these are all the right moves,” he continued. “But direct war between the world’s two nuclear powers should be a non-starter.”

On Friday, NATO leadership again denied Zelensky’s request.

“We are not part of this conflict,” Stoltenberg said at a meeting of the alliance in Brussels. “We have a responsibility as NATO allies to prevent this war from escalating beyond Ukraine, because that would be even more dangerous, more devastating and would cause even more human suffering.”

Zelensky criticized the decision in a televised address late that evening, saying, “Today there was a NATO summit, a weak summit, a confused summit, a summit where it was clear that not everyone considers the battle for Europe’s freedom to be the No. 1 goal. Today the leadership of the alliance gave the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages, having refused to set up a no-fly zone.”