US Peace Activists Must Keep Pressure on Biden to Prevent No-Fly Zone in Ukraine

On Wednesday, President Biden announced $800million in new military assistance for Ukraine. This was just days after Congress approved a $1.5 trillion spending bill which included nearly $14 billion for humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Experts warn that more lethal weapons could lead to more war and more losses for Ukraine. “The cost on civilian lives is horrific,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who says increasing military aid in Ukraine could thwart peace talks between Russia and Ukraine — which appeared to be making progress in the past few days. Her latest piece is headlined “The Best Way to Help Ukraine Is Diplomacy, Not War.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth week, President Biden has announced $800 million in new military aid for Ukraine. According to the White House the package will include more than 20 million rounds of ammunition, 100 drones, 2,000 Javelin anti–armor missiles, and 800 Stinger anti–aircraft systems. Wednesday’s White House speech was given by Biden.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:Our new assistance package also includes 9,000 Anti-Armor Systems. These are portable, high — high accurately — high-accuracy shoulder-mounted missiles that the Ukrainian forces have been using with great effect to destroy invading tanks and armored vehicles. It’ll include 7,000 small arms — machine guns, shotguns, grenade launchers — to equip the Ukrainians, including the brave women and men who are defending their cities as civilians, and they’re on the countryside, as well. You will also find 20 million rounds of ammunition, artillery, mortar rounds, and other small arms. Twenty million rounds. And this will include drones, which — which demonstrates our commitment to sending our most cutting-edge systems to Ukraine for its defense.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden’s remarks came hours after the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, gave a virtual address to Congress. Biden repeated his call to a NATOZelensky invoked Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks as a no-fly zone. While most of Zelensky’s speech was in Ukrainian, he delivered part in English directly to President Biden.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY:As the leader in my nation, I am speaking to President Biden. You are the leader of this great nation. I wish that you would be the leader in the world. Being the leader of the global community means being the leader of peace.

AMY GOODMAN:Although the Biden administration has not yet reacted to calls for a nofly zone, there are more details about how the U.S. secretly helped Ukraine. Yahoo News is reportingA small number of veterans CIAParamilitaries trained Ukrainian special forces to fight against Russian forces.

There are signs that the United States is making progress on the diplomatic front to end the conflict as it sends arms to Ukraine. The Financial TimesIs reportingDelegations from Russia and Ukraine have reached a 15-point agreement in which Russia would withdraw its troops in return for Ukraine’s renunciation of its ambitions to join. NATO and agreeing not to host foreign military bases or weapons — to remain neutral.

To talk more about these latest developments, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, her recent piece headlined “The Best Way to Help Ukraine Is Diplomacy, Not War.”

Phyllis, we are so grateful for your rejoining Democracy Now!This issue is urgently under discussion. Can you respond to what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine and what President Biden announced yesterday, the massive infusion of weapons to Ukraine?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, you know, Amy — and good morning to you both — the $800 million that was just announced in new weapons comes on top of an almost $15 billion aid package that has — much of which will go to Ukraine for a combination of humanitarian and military support. So this is something that’s been going on for several months now, the massive arming of Ukraine in this war.

And I think that what we’re seeing in terms of the diplomatic possibilities is very much a way to see what — the term they like to use is an “off-ramp,” an off-ramp for Russia, but also an off-ramp for the Ukrainian authorities to get out from under this constant escalation that we’re seeing, that the cost on civilian lives is horrific. And although we don’t have good numbers, it does seem clear that the numbers of Russian troops that are being killed is also rising at a very, very fast rate. Both of these leaders will have a difficult time maintaining this level of casualties. The question of whether this is the beginning of a diplomatic solution becomes very important.

The new weapons could clearly change the ground conditions. As we’ve all seen, the Russian military assault has not played out the way Biden — sorry, the way Putin presumably intended it to. The Russian troops have been partially physically and partly mentally hampered by a number of convoys that are trying to take over Kyiv. However, the constant bombings and missile attacks have caused massive civilian casualties. This has limited the ability of both the military and civilian forces of Ukraine to protect civilians. This makes the deal very, very important.

What we’re hearing about this deal is not different than what has been anticipated in recent days, that a deal would have to include a Russian withdrawal and, of course, a ceasefire, that Ukraine would have to give up its claim to be intending to join NATO. The language that we’re hearing now may be included is some definition of a separate protection, a Ukrainian protection alliance, which would essentially allow an official legal treaty to be signed between Ukraine and a number of other countries, probably including the U.S., the U.K., Turkey, maybe a couple of other European countries, who would agree that if Ukraine were to be invaded or threatened again, they would come directly to the aid of Ukraine. It would almost be a kind of “regular” treaty. NATOWithout the official political consequences that come with being an official member, countries lite can be considered as members of NATO. And the theory is — and this may well work — that for the political goals that Putin has had, he would be able to say, “I won. I got what I wanted. When I sent in the troops, I got exactly what I wanted. To make sure that Ukraine doesn’t join, this is what they were sent in to do. NATO and that it emerges as a neutral country.”

The question of Ukraine being neutral seems to be on the agenda. It’s not one of the items that at least the initial reporting is saying Ukraine has already agreed to, but it’s a likely possibility. There are several versions of neutrality. There’s the existing European versions in Finland, Switzerland, Norway, and they all differ somewhat in what kind of militaries they can have, what kind of relationships they can have with other military forces. The Ukrainian authorities who have been involved in the diplomacy have said that the issue of maintaining a separate, independent military is not up for grabs, that that’s a definite commitment that they will have, that they will have a Ukrainian military, and that the question of not allowing any foreign bases or foreign troops to be stationed in the country is not an issue because those are already prohibited under the Ukrainian Constitution. So, what’s changed is not so much the terms of a possible agreement, but the fact that both sides — and most notably Russia, which has been much more resistant to a diplomatic solution — appears to be moving closer to that possibility.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Phyllis, could you respond specifically — to go back to the question of the U.S. sending arms to Ukraine — the provision, in particular, of these 100 so-called killer drones, Switchblade drones? This is the first time since the Russian invasion that the U.S. will be providing drones, though Ukraine has been using, apparently to great effect, Turkish — armed drones provided by Turkey. Could you please talk about the drones the U.S. will be supplying?

PHYLLIS BENNIS:Yes, this is a serious escalation for what the U.S. sends. Nermeen, you are correct that the Turkish drones have been used by the Ukrainians for a while now. These drones are far more powerful than the Russian soldiers on ground. If they are used well, they could cause the death of large numbers of soldiers.

As we consider the increasing militarization in this war, the question of drone extension, or where drones are being used is a serious global issue. Europe is talking about remilitarizing. Germany, in particular, is saying they are going to spend a lot more money on their military, that they’re going to start spending 2% of their GDPOn military forces, something that has always been a goal NATOThis has been achieved by only 10 European countries, excluding Germany, which is the wealthiest country in Europe. This is a serious level of escalation. Whether it will have a qualitative shift in the battlefield situation in terms of the balance of forces, I don’t think we know yet, but it does represent a serious U.S. commitment.

It’s important, I think, to keep it in the context of what we’re so far seeing as a continued commitment by the Biden administration to say no to the continued call for a no-fly zone. And this is important, because after President Zelensky’s speech yesterday at the joint session of Congress — that was a major focus of his demand, although his language, I think, indicated some recognition that he’s really not likely to get that. But it is something that he has called for continuously, and I think he, presumably, felt that he had to continue to call for this kind of support, for a no-fly zone, because it’s such a popular demand inside Ukraine. And that’s absolutely understandable. These air attacks are making the Ukrainian people desperate. The attacks from the air have mostly not been carried out by Russian planes. Some have. The theory is that a no fly zone could stop some of this. However, most of the air attacks come from missiles or rockets that are being launched from other ground-launched and Russian military forces.

Another thing to consider is the cost of a no fly zone. This sounds very intriguing. It sounds like a great idea. It sounds amazing. Star Wars, that it’s sort of a magical shield that will protect people on the ground. This ignores the reality of how a no-fly zone should be established. We can remember back a decade ago in the Libya crisis when U.S. diplomats — it was centered in the State Department. There was a demand for a no fly zone. The opposition came from the secretary of defense, came from the Pentagon, ironically enough, saying — and this was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said, “We should be clear that a no-fly zone in Libya starts with attacking Libya.” It starts with, you have to take out the anti-aircraft forces on the ground; you have to take out the Russian, in this case, planes that are flying around, potentially dropping bombs. So it’s a major attack by the United States directly on Russia: the two most powerful nuclear-armed countries going to war with each other. That’s the beginning. That’s just the beginning of a no-fly zone.

So, it’s very, very important that the pressure remain on the Biden administration to maintain the opposition to a no-fly zone. It’s going to be increasingly difficult, I think, because in Congress there is — there’s certainly not a majority, thankfully, but there are increasing members of Congress that are calling for a no-fly zone. Some of that is political posturing. But if that rises and if there’s a public call because there’s this sense of, “Well, let’s just do that, let’s just have a no-fly zone,” as if it was this magical shield, I think that it will become increasingly difficult for the Biden administration. That is why it becomes even more important.

It’s taking place, this debate is taking place, in the context of what I mentioned earlier, the increasing militarization that is one of the consequences of this war. We’re seeing that certainly across Europe, but we’re also seeing it in the United States — the new $800 billion [sic], parts of the $14.5 billion — sorry, the $800 million for the new package, the $14.5 billion package that has already been underway for Ukraine. This war is all about the arms dealers. They’re the ones that are making a killing. That will continue. This will continue in an increasingly militarized Europe after the war. These consequences will be very, very serious.

And the potential, if there is anything remotely resembling a no-fly zone, not only holds the threat of escalation, up to and including a nuclear exchange — not something that I think the main forces on either side want, but is something that might be impossible to prevent if there were to be an escalation in a direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia. In this context, the call might be back for European countries to have U.S. nuclear weapons in their countries. Five are available right now NATOThe United States has the right to control nations that have nuclear weapons. That’s in complete violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. All the nonproliferation, abolition and other treaties in Europe are not working right now. There must be new arms control agreements. The trajectory right now is in the opposite direction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Phyllis, in your question about, you said, increasing pressure for the U.S. impose a No-Fly Zone, one question: Can the U.S. become involved in imposing a No-Fly Zone without the consent? NATO countries? Because so far it’s not just the U.S., the Biden administration, that’s ruled that out, but also the EU, also NATO countries. And then, second, despite the fact that there may have been progress in these negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, there’s been a simultaneous escalation of rhetoric, with Biden calling Putin a war criminal, and Putin, in a televised speech yesterday, talking about scum and traitors in Russia, those who are pro-Western, who are not patriots, and rooting them out. Could you speak on both of these issues?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah. On your first point, Nermeen, you know, the question of “Could the U.S. do something that the other NATO members don’t like?” the answer is, of course, they could. They are the most powerful part. NATOThe notion that NATOMembers are in some ways equal within the organization NATOIt is almost as absurd to think that all members of the U.N. Security Council or all members of its General Assembly are equal. This is where the realities of world politics play a part, which includes military power, economic clout and all of that stuff.

Now, the question of “Would the U.S. engage in creation of a no-fly zone with the significant opposition of their allies?” I think is unlikely, but I think it’s unlikely the U.S. wants to do it anyway. I think Washington, especially the Pentagon recognizes the dangers of this. But it’s also — it’s certainly possible that the U.S. could move unilaterally to engage in Ukraine. Ironically, it would presumably have the permission, or even a request, as it’s already had, from the government of Ukraine. The governments of the surrounding countries would not be in this position unless they were willing to state that they were going deny their airspace the United States. This is not reasonable. So I don’t think that NATOIt is unlikely that opposition to the U.S. determination will work. But again, I don’t think that the U.S., at this stage at least, is intending to move towards a no-fly zone.

I’m sorry, and I’m forgetting what the second question was.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: [inaudible]Negotiations will succeed given the escalating rhetoric.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah. On the one hand, you know, this would not be the first time that escalations, both, unfortunately, on the ground, as we’re seeing in this horrific attack on the theater in Ukraine — escalation in force before negotiations succeed is a common reality. Even more common is the use of rhetoric to escalate before negotiations succeed. This could be a positive sign, but it might be perverse.

One of the challenges that we’re facing here is that these negotiations that are underway are direct bilateral talks between the two major parties, Russia and Ukraine. The U.S. is yet to engage in negotiations and has not stated what they would accept in a deal or what they would give up. The U.S. has stated in the past that it wants Ukraine as a member of its NATO. NATO. It has also said — government officials have also said, quietly, privately, that they have no intention of allowing Ukraine to become a member of NATOThey know how provocative that would be for Russia. But they have not said explicitly, “We are taking that off the table.” Are they prepared to do that? Is the U.S. prepared to accept a Ukrainian concession? That would be very important for the Biden administration to make clear, what the U.S. is prepared to give up in its own positioning and, crucially, what it’s prepared to accept from Ukraine. Is it willing to accept all concessions made in Ukraine’s favor, whether that is Ukraine permanently staying out or Ukraine becoming a neutral country. NATO?

The possibility — the two tricky issues, I would say, that are not yet — there’s not even a report that they might be resolved — they might be put off — is the recognition of Crimea as belonging to Russia, something that Russia says it’s insisting on — in the past, the Ukrainian government has said that’s not acceptable — and also the question of the status, whether independence, autonomy or something else, of the eastern provinces in Donbas. Both of those seem to be unresolved, but there is an indication that they might agree to put those off and not resolve those in the midst of a broader — this 15-point agreement that we’re hearing about being underway, that would, crucially, begin with a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian forces. They are uncertain but they might not stop some type of agreement from being made, hopefully soon.

AMY GOODMAN:We want to thank Phyllis Bennis for being with us as author and fellow at The Institute for Policy Studies. We’ll link to your piece, “The Best Way to Help Ukraine Is Diplomacy, Not War.”

Coming up, we talk to a Syrian filmmaker about how many of Russia’s military tactics in Ukraine resemble what she witnessed in her home city of Aleppo. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: John Lennon’s “Imagine,” performed in Russian by Nailskey. Interestingly, Russia’s prima ballerina Olga Smirnova has quit Moscow’s world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet after denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.