US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has denied any plans to impose a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Ukraine, arguing that any such attempt could spark an all-out war between the world's two largest nuclear powers.
Austin made the remark during an exclusive interview with NBC on Wednesday following pleas from officials in Kiev, stressing that a no-fly zone was a “non-starter” as tensions continue to grow between Washington and Moscow over the latter’s military operation in Ukraine.
“President [Joe] Biden’s been clear that US troops won’t fight Russia in Ukraine, and if you establish a no-fly zone, certainly in order to enforce that no-fly zone, you’ll have to engage Russian aircraft. And again, that would put us at war with Russia,” Austin said.
The remarks come as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the United States and its allies on Monday to take control of “significant parts” of his country’s airspace in order to disrupt Russian air operations.
He argued that Ukrainians could build on their early successes and defeat Russia if the West established a no-fly zone.
Zelensky also tweeted Tuesday that he had "emphasized the need to close the sky over" Ukraine in a phone conversation with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Washington, however, has been reluctant to act on the request, with US officials warning that enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine would risk a direct confrontation with Russia. This comes as Biden has also been discouraging Americans from going to Ukraine for a fight against the Russian forces, despite Zelensky’s request.
At a news briefing earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also noted the risks associated with enforcing a no-fly zone, saying, “That is definitely escalating and would potentially put us in a place in a military conflict with Russia. That’s something the president doesn’t want to do.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also echoed that stance, saying to get “involved actively in conflict with Russia is a huge step which is not being contemplated by any member” of the NATO alliance, and that an NFZ was “simply not on the agenda.”
Last Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military offensive against Ukraine. The “special operation” in Ukraine was to demilitarize and “de-Nazify” the country, a justification dismissed by Kiev and the West as propaganda.
The operation has prompted the US and its NATO allies to impose harsh sanctions on the Kremlin, including Putin and his senior ministers and aides.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has announced that the bloc would provide $500 million in lethal and non-lethal aid to Ukraine while closing its airspace to Russia.
Germany and other European countries have also announced that they would speed weapon supplies and other military assistance to help Ukraine repel Russia’s advance.