A senior US official raised doubts on Tuesday about the effectiveness of any no-fly zone over Ukraine, adding a practical objection to the West’s reluctance to intervene directly in the war with Russia.
Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to Nato, said long-range air strikes that pounded the far west of Ukraine had come from inside Russian territory, demonstrating the long reach of Moscow’s armed forces.
The attacks on a training centre in Yavoriv, just 25 kilometres from the border with Poland, led to renewed calls from Kyiv for western powers to ban warplanes from Ukraine’s skies.
But officials in Washington have interpreted the attack as raising a broader question, as Ms Smith put it at a briefing on Tuesday, about the usefulness of a no-fly zone.
“What we learned from that was that Russia actually was able to instigate that attack from a Russian bomber in Russian airspace, begging the question about whether or not a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace would actually have a major impact on Russia’s ability to attack Ukrainian territory,” she said.
Nato has rejected Ukraine’s pleas for a no-fly zone on the grounds that enforcing it would involve shooting down Russian jets and risk escalating the conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that he too would treat this as a direct Nato intervention in the conflict, a step the alliance wants to avoid – not least after Moscow ordered its nuclear deterrent put on high alert.
Any Russian retaliation against Nato aircraft could trigger the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defence clause and thereby bring all 30 countries into a direct conflict with Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in turn, has raged at western powers for “giving the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities” by refusing to shut out Russian planes.
But Nato foreign ministers rejected a no-fly zone at a summit on March 4, and Ms Smith said it would not be on the table when defence ministers from the alliance’s 30 member states meet in Brussels on Wednesday.
The goal of western powers is “to end this war, to get Russia to leave Ukraine", she said. “We don’t want to expand this conflict.”
Britain has raised the concern that a no-fly zone would impede Ukraine’s resistance by preventing its air force from striking Russian forces.
Poland offered to help those Ukrainian pilots by providing a fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 jets, but this idea too was scotched by Washington, which said the proposed transfer was untenable.
Although the Pentagon said it was up to Poland whether to send jets to Ukraine, it raised concerns about a possible escalation, and Ms Smith said ministers in Warsaw did not have “all of the details adequately sorted”.
She said the US was “continually assessing” whether it could provide more air defence equipment to the country.