Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is stepping up his calls for a no-fly zone as his country faces escalating Russian bombardment of key cities and strategic sites, but the NATO military alliance remains highly unlikely to support one.
“Europe must wake up,” Zelenskiy said in a video message early Friday after Ukraine said shelling in the area that houses the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant had caused a fire. “Russian tanks are firing at the nuclear power station, the biggest one in Europe,” he added. “Only urgent Europe actions can stop Russian troops.”
The pleas put the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a difficult spot, given its position that it is purely a defensive alliance. While it has sent troops and equipment further east to reinforce countries closer to Russia, it has made clear it would not send troops into Ukraine.
“We don’t have to do anything to escalate,” Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told reporters ahead of a meeting of the alliance’s ministers Friday in Brussels where the issue of a no-fly zone is set to be discussed. “Neither NATO nor the European allies nor the Ukrainians themselves and the Ukrainian government want war.”
Policing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace would force its aircraft to directly confront Russian planes, risking drawing it into an open conflict that spirals further into Europe. The prospect of a war that extends beyond Ukraine’s borders is something that states in Eastern Europe are highly anxious about.
“No-fly zone means NATO being in a conflict since it would be NATO’s forces enforcing this no-fly zone,” the Czech Republic’s Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky told reporters in Brussels. “However the Czech Republic and other states are supplying weapons to Ukraine so Ukraine can enforce their no-fly zone, this is the proper solution.
Allies are also concerned that NATO does not have the means to close the skies above Ukraine, given Russia’s strong military capabilities.
Canadian foreign minister Melanie Joly said the “red line” was to make sure there was no international conflict triggered from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and “obviously this is something that we take into account in taking our decisions.”
NATO has enforced a no-fly zone before, including over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993. But while a zone over Ukraine airspace would have defensive effects, it would also likely involve allied planes shooting at Russian aircraft, NATO officials say.
There’s also the concern that escalation between NATO and Russia could heighten tensions on the nuclear front.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, in a recent interview with Bloomberg TV, called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to raise the alert level of his nuclear forces “reckless” and “irresponsible.” The military alliance has not raised its own alert level.
“NATO is not part of the conflict,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Friday. “NATO is a defensive alliance, we don’t seek war, conflict with Russia.”