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A no-fly zone isn't what Ukraine needs, says former U.S. NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder


Two million people have now fled Ukraine, according to the U.N., and as the humanitarian crisis there worsens, calls for a no-fly zone are getting louder. Today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded on Instagram, close the sky right now. Stop the killings. And a group of 27 foreign policy experts, including former U.S. military leaders and defense officials, have signed an open letter to the Biden administration. They're urging the U.S. and its NATO allies to impose what they call a limited no-fly zone to protect humanitarian corridors.

Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder is not among the letter's signatories but helped implement a no-fly zone in Libya, and he joins me now. Welcome.

IVO DAALDER: Glad to be here.

MCCAMMON: The letter reads in part, quote, "it is time for the United States NATO to step up their help for Ukrainians before more innocent civilians fall victim to Putin's murderous madness. Ukrainians are courageously defending their country and their freedom, but they need more help from the international community," unquote. What is your response to this letter, first of all?

DAALDER: Well, I think we all share the heartache of watching the pictures on our TV screens and just understanding the horror that is being inflicted by Russian forces on the Ukrainian population. It's not just the refugees in large numbers. It's the people in the cities who can't get out and are internally displaced. So we all share our horror. The real question is, what can we do about it?

MCCAMMON: In your view, is it possible to implement what this letter is pushing for, which is what they describe as a limited no-fly zone?

DAALDER: Yeah, I don't know what a limited no-fly zone really means for two reasons. First, the vast majority of the damage that the Russians are inflicting on Ukraine is by ground forces, by rockets, by artillery, by tank shelling, by missiles. None of those would be affected by flying a no-fly zone. And so the reality is, just as we saw in Libya when I was a NATO ambassador, when people are being killed by ground fire, the only way to deal with it is to go after the forces doing the killing. That's not a limited no-fly zone. That's going to war against Russia.

MCCAMMON: I'm curious because this is an argument I've seen from others who are opposed to a no-fly zone for the same reasons that you are - out of concern of escalation with Russia. But why then - if you say it would be relatively ineffective in addressing the problem, why do you think there is this push for a no-fly zone?

DAALDER: So I think there's a tendency for so many to believe that there are limited forms of engagement that doesn't lead to escalation but will have a real effect. And I think if you look at no-fly zones in history, with very, very few exceptions, they've never been very particularly effective to prevent damage against a people in the way that we're seeing the Russians inflicting right now.

If we were to do a no-fly zone, the pressure to actually start bombing Russian forces on the ground that are inflicting most of the damage will just increase. So it's a first step along an escalatory ladder that if we're going to go there, we better be very, very prepared to go all the way.

MCCAMMON: Today, we're hearing reports from Mariupol where Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of firing on evacuation points. Do you see any other humanitarian options at this point short of an escalating war?

DAALDER: Well, clearly, international humanitarian agencies are trying their best to help the people inside Ukraine. The International Red Cross is there. NGOs are helping. The U.N. probably could do more than it is currently doing.

But other than helping the Ukrainians to defend themselves, the only other way we can stop this war is to directly intervene. Up to this point, no one has argued that we should. And trying to find what I think are halfway measures that risks that very escalation when, at the same time, we are not prepared to move in that direction, I just don't think it's going to help the people of Ukraine or, frankly, anyone else.

MCCAMMON: Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. Thank you.

DAALDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.