No-Fly Zone in Ukraine Would Be “Direct Involvement in the War,” Experts Warn

Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, continues to call for the U.S. NATO Allies create a no-fly zone above Ukraine. President Biden rejected the idea, but a growing number Republicans are now open to the idea, despite the fact that it could bring the U.S. into the war against Russia. It could also spark a nuclear conflict. Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s American Statecraft Program, wrote an open letter that was signed by foreign policy experts opposing a no fly zone over Ukraine. It calls on leaders to continue to take diplomatic and economic steps to end the conflict. “As you start thinking about how a no-fly zone would actually unfold, it becomes very obvious this would be direct involvement in the war against Russia, and rather than end the war, a no-fly zone would enlarge the war and escalate the war,” says Wertheim.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Today, Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, is giving a virtual address in both chambers to the U.S. Congress. He is expected to make the same call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone. While President Biden has not yet responded to his request, former officials and members of Congress have supported the idea.

A group of experts in foreign policy have joined forces to create an interim plan. open letter opposing a no-fly zone. Stephen Wertheim, our next guest co-wrote the letter. He’s senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of the book Tomorrow, the World: U.S.’s Birth Global Supremacy.

Stephen, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Talk about what it means to impose a no-fly zone and why you’re opposed, what this letter is all about.

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: A no-fly zone is a humanitarian or technical measure that many people find useful. Our experience with no fly zones stems from the past three decades, when a few no-fly areas were imposed against weaker enemies than Russia. It means that the United States and NATO Forces would agree to shoot down any enemy planes that enter the zone. It’s quite clear Russia would not voluntarily comply with our verbal declaration of a no-fly zone, so we’d have to shoot those planes down. And to do that, we’d have to patrol the area with our own planes to gain supremacy in the skies over Ukraine. And to do that safely, we would have to destroy the enemy’s air defense systems on the ground, as well. Many of these are located in Belarus, while some could be found in Russia. Russians could indeed fire at the U.S. NATO Russia.

Then, the question becomes: Would you go to war, go war and exchange gunfire with Russians who are located within Russian territory? As you begin to think about how a no fly zone might actually work, it becomes clear that this would be direct participation in the war against Russia. A no-fly zone will not end the war but would only increase the war and escalate it. And that’s why the Biden administration has, rightly, been very clear throughout this conflict that a no-fly zone would be escalatory and is not something that it wants to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re talking about a war between nuclear powers, and what Putin has said is clearly suggesting people should be very careful about moving forward — threatening, in fact.

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: As President Obama noted, Russia would have escalation dominance with respect to Ukraine. This means that Ukraine’s value to Russia is much greater than the West’s. Putin would be willing to go further. This would be a struggle for his existence. This is more so now than when he invaded.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you —

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: He may even resort to nuclear power.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you address the suggestion of a, quote-unquote, “limited” no-fly zone?

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: It’s hard to know what that would mean exactly. It is necessary to indicate where a restricted no-fly zone would apply. There is no real limited no-fly zone. A no-fly zone is a commitment to not only declare something but to also enforce it by making sure that Russian aircraft cannot fly within the zone. This would be clearly interpreted as a declaration of war and an act to escalate Russia’s aggression. Russia wouldn’t be wrong to view it that way. And in every case, the basically three cases in which no-fly zones have been imposed in recent decades — and again, imposed against enemies much, much weaker than Russia — the mission has expanded.

For example, if we impose a no-fly zone, whether it’s called limited or not, and our pilots actually do gain superiority in the air, and they’re watching Russians inflict terrible violence on Ukrainians below them, then we’re faced with a question: Should we actually attack Russian forces on the ground? And if not, what was the point of establishing a no-fly zone, if it’s making little difference in the war itself? A no-fly zone will not, by itself, alleviate the suffering the Ukrainians are going through due to Russian aggression. It would be a step towards a wider war, but it is not the end of the matter.

AMY GOODMAN: I was curious to know what the status of negotiations is to end this war. The Ukrainian President Zelensky stated earlier today that Russian demands have become more realistic.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated]All should work together, including our representatives and our delegation, to reach an agreement with the Russian Federation. It is not easy but it is important as any war ends in an agreement. The meetings continue and I am informed that the positions taken during the negotiations seem more realistic. The decisions must be made in Ukraine’s interests, but it will take time.

AMY GOODMAN: Zelensky’s remarks came a day after he acknowledged he doesn’t expect Ukraine to join NATO This is very important. Yesterday, during a news conference, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki what the U.S. is doing to advance peace negotiations and whether the U.S. would lift its sanctions on Russia if it reached a peace deal with Ukraine. This is just a portion of her speech.

RYAN GRIM: Apart from the request for weapons and diplomatic assistance, President Zelensky also asked that the United States be more involved with negotiations towards a peaceful end to the war. What is the U.S. doing in order to move these negotiations forward?

PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: Well, one of the steps we’ve taken, a significant one, is to be the largest provider of military and humanitarian and economic assistance in the world, to put them in a greater position of strength as they go into these negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a part of what Jen Psaki — that’s a part of what Jen Psaki said. Stephen, what is your response to this?

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: Well, it is encouraging that President Zelensky is now being even more explicit, continuing a string of remarks over the past week or so in which he has expressed a real openness to making a settlement to the war, suggesting that he’s open to committing to neutrality for Ukraine with respect to NATO. That has been a core need of Russia for a long time.

The Biden administration has also offered some encouraging words. Tony Blinken, Secretary-of-State, suggested recently that the sanctions imposed against Russia were not intended for permanent use. This signal may indicate that the United States is willing to remove some of the most severe sanctions against Russia if necessary to reach a peace agreement that Zelensky’s legitimate government would like. And so, that’s the key. If the Zelensky government believes it’s in the interest of Ukraine to stop the bloodshed, accept what will surely be some painful concessions, but nevertheless preserve the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine in a peaceful way, what I think will be important from the United States and its allies is to be able to be part of those negotiations and make certain concessions with respect to sanctions, that would be surely necessary to reach a peaceful resolution to the war.



AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: Whether we’re at the point where in fact Russia is willing to make an agreement, that is hard to judge. We may be able to get there in the next few weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia has not allowed any intermediate-range or shorter-range missiles to be deployed near enough to strike the territory of either side. Please explain. We only have 30 seconds.

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: Actually, prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion several weeks ago, it seemed as though the United States and Russia were making some progress in diplomacy on issues like the one you mentioned, on arms control agreements, which would involve reciprocal measures whereby NATO Forces in the east NATO Both Russia and the United States would like to reintroduce the limitations on their armaments that were established during the Cold War. They were also built up a little after the Cold War but have been weakened over the past several decades. So this is also —

AMY GOODMAN: We have only 10 seconds.

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: This could also be part of an eventual peace agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stephen Wertheim, we’re going to do Part 2 of our conversation with you and post it online at Stephen Wertheim, senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s American Statecraft Program, is also an author. He’s a visiting fellow at Yale Law School and author of the book Tomorrow, the World: U.S.’s Birth Global Supremacy.

This is it for our show. Democracy Now! This film was made with a remarkable team of people. I’m Amy Goodman. Keep safe.