Despite Zelensky’s Pleas For a No-Fly Zone, NATO Won’t Consider It – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke via Zoom with more than 300 members of Congress on Saturday, making a “desperate plea” to them for more combat aircraft for his country facing a Russian invasion while urging them to ban the import of Russian oil.
The meeting was the first time Zelensky had addressed both houses of Congress since Russia’s invasion on February 24. And with Russian forces trying to encircle the capital of Kyiv, Zelensky told Washington lawmakers that this could be the last time that they see him alive.
While remaining resolute in his adamance to keep resisting the Russian invasion, Zelensky was appealing to Congress for even more support, mainly with NATO imposing a no-fly zone and more combat aircraft. Congress last week approved the largest ever package of existing US arms inventory worth $350 million. But Congress is working on getting the Ukrainians even more support, although a no-fly zone still appears to be off the table.
Senator Ben Sasse, (R-NE), released a statement after the meeting. “Let’s be cleareyed about our options: A no-fly zone means sending American pilots into combat against Russian jets and air defenses — in a battle between nuclear powers that could spiral out of control quickly.” And that seems to be the major sticking point with NATO.
Why NATO is Still Likely To Balk at a No-Fly Zone:
Zelensky’s pleas for a no-fly zone were amplified after the Russians attacked a nuclear power plant on Friday. Luckily, however, there didn’t appear to be any radiation leaks from Ukraine’s six reactors.
“Immediate closure of the skies over Ukraine is needed,” Zelensky said. “Take to the streets and say that you want to live, to live on earth without radioactive contamination. Radiation does not know where the Russian border is.”
But NATO, fearing that implementing a no-fly zone will open the door for direct military conflict with Russian forces, which could rapidly escalate into a full-fledged European conflict.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that “the only way to implement a no-fly zone is to send NATO fighter planes into Ukrainian airspace, and then impose that no-fly zone by shooting down Russian planes,”
“We understand the desperation, but we also believe that if we did that, we would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe.”
“We have a responsibility as NATO allies to prevent this war from escalating beyond Ukraine,” he added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued yet another warning to the West on Saturday that his country would consider any third-party declaration of a no-fly zone over Ukraine as participation in the war there.
Russia, Putin said, would view “any move in this direction” as an intervention that “will pose a threat to our service members.”
“That very second, we will view them as participants of the military conflict, and it would not matter what members they are,” Putin added while attending a meeting with female pilots.
What Would A No-Fly Zone Entail For NATO Air Forces?
The enacting of a No-Fly Zone by NATO is more than just scrambling F-15s and F-35s into Ukrainian airspace to patrol the skies and stop Russian aircraft from conducting airstrikes on Ukrainian territory.
To be effective, NATO aircraft would have to be willing to fire on Russian pilots and Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites. Conducting a no-fly zone over a country as large as Ukraine would be a vast undertaking and involve hundreds of aircraft. This would be much larger than the no-fly zones enforced over Iraq after the first Gulf War.
To maintain the fighters aloft would entail employing a large fleet of airborne refueling tankers as well as electronic surveillance aircraft such as the American AWACS aircraft. Those are slow and would provide fat easy targets for Russian SAM air defense sites.
So those sites in Russia and Belarussia would have to be attacked and neutralized. Then NATO (including US aircraft) would be conducting airstrikes in Russia, which is a major escalation. Retired US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who was the NATO Supreme Allied Commander from 2013-2016 said such a step was a serious decision.
“It’s tantamount to war,” he said to Foreign Policy magazine. “If we’re going to declare a no-fly zone, we have to take down the enemy’s capability to fire into and affect our no-fly zone.”
Poland May Be In a Position to Help:
One way to get the Ukrainians the help they require is for Poland to transfer some fighters to Ukrainian control. This is an area that members of Congress have said that they will support.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-NY) said in a statement that Zelenskyy made a “desperate plea for Eastern European countries to provide Russian-made planes to Ukraine.”
“These planes are very much needed. And I will do all I can to help the administration to facilitate their transfer.”
One unidentified White House official told CNN that the US is determining what “capabilities we could provide to backfill Poland if it decided to transfer planes to Ukraine,” but stopped short of details what that would entail. The Polish Air Force has older MiG-29s in their inventory, an aircraft also used by Ukraine.
The US couldn’t transfer any of its aircraft to Ukraine as it would take months of training for Ukrainian pilots to transition to US-made aircraft. One particular plane mentioned by television analysts is the A-10 Warthog, but again it would take months of training.
While sounding appealing, establishing a no-fly zone isn’t just akin to flipping a switch. And right now the majority of damage done to Ukrainian civilian infrastructure isn’t coming from Russian aircraft but their artillery and missile fire.
Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 19fortyfive.com, he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for more than 10 years and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.