Putin's attacks on civilians raise pressure on US, NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increased aerial bombardment of civilian areas in Ukraine has triggered allegations of war crimes and raised pressure on the West to take more direct action to save lives.

President Biden has yet to publicly reject a no-fly zone, but U.S. officials have said the measure is a nonstarter to avoid open military conflict between the West and Russia. 

But some experts and lawmakers warn that such declarations might embolden Putin to further carry out atrocities by drawing a line on the steps the U.S. and its allies are willing to take. 

Evelyn Farkas, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under the Obama administration, said she is not advocating for a no-fly zone but wouldn’t take it off the table.

“I don’t want to telegraph to Putin ahead of time what we want to do, especially because we know he’s capable of practically anything and we are trying to deter him from further horrific action, from cutting off future options for Ukraine, assistance to Ukraine or our defense of NATO,” she said.  

The Biden administration, Ukrainian officials and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have all said there are credible reports that Russia has dropped so-called cluster and vacuum bombs on targets in Ukraine. They say the munitions likely violate international law for causing wide-scale damage and death.  

Yet despite the indiscriminate aerial attacks, Biden administration officials and NATO’s secretary general have seemed to explicitly rule out the idea of a no-fly zone with comments over the past week. 

“The President’s been very clear about one thing all along as well, which is we’re not going to put the United States in direct conflict with Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, rejecting the idea of a no-fly zone.  “What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one.”

The secretary added, “keep in mind what a no-fly zone means. It means that if you declare a space no-fly and a Russian plane flies through it, it means we have to shoot it down.” 

Those statements have continued despite pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

“We repeat every day, ‘Close the sky over Ukraine!’ Close it for all Russian missiles, Russian combat aircraft, for all these terrorists. We are people and it is your humanitarian duty to protect us, protect people,” Zelensky said in a video message posted to Twitter on Sunday.

“If you do not do that, if you at least do not give us aircraft for us to be able to protect ourselves, there can be only one conclusion: You want us to be slowly killed. This is also the responsibility of the world’s politicians, Western leaders. Today and forever,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Putin has continued to escalate his military campaign in Ukraine in recent days by targeting civilian areas and metro areas. A family of four was among civilians killed by a Russian blast as they tried to flee Irpin over the weekend. 

Broadly, lawmakers from both parties have sided with the administration in its decision to dismiss the no-fly zone, saying it would risk a dramatic escalation of war in Europe. 

“Once we engage with Russians directly, that does involve all of our NATO partners as well. That gives Russia then the opportunity to attack not only the United States but also others in Europe,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

At the same time, she said the U.S. needs to provide Ukraine with as much lethal aid as possible to help Ukraine protect its own airspace.

A small number, however, expressed disagreement with the administration’s approach.

“Right now you don’t signal to the nemesis, to Putin… to take anything off the table,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press”. “Thinking we might not be able to use things because we’ve already taken them off the table is wrong. I would take nothing off the table.” 

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized those who reject a no-fly zone as ceding to Putin. 

“Failing to do so in fear of Putin, simply empowers Putin even more,” he said in a video posted to social media on Sunday. “Now's the time to put a stop to him and his barbaric brutality.”

Kinzinger further called for a “humanitarian air corridor” to allow for the delivery of food, medicine and other critical survival supplies into Kyiv, and for the U.S. to “create an enhanced humanitarian air policing mission over western Ukraine. where Russia's military campaign is more limited.”

Absent a no-fly zone, the U.S. is looking to answer Zelensky’s calls to bolster Ukraine’s air force, with Blinken saying the administration supports Poland’s move to send war planes to Kyiv and is working to transfer American fighter jets to Warsaw. 

“We’re talking with our Polish friends right now about what we might be able to do to backfill their needs if, in fact, they choose to provide these fighter jets to the Ukrainians,” Blinken said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “We’re in very active discussions with them about that.” 

In Congress, lawmakers from both parties are supporting the scheme for countries in eastern Europe to ship war planes to Ukraine. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. and allies are working through a range of “challenging practical questions” associated with such a move, including how the planes will be transferred and where they will depart and land from. She suggested it would be a problem if the planes fly from a NATO airbase in Poland to Ukraine.

“It is not as easy as just moving planes around,” she said.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sent a letter to Biden on Saturday offering support for the administration’s plan to transfer American aircraft to eastern European allies, including Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia, in exchange for those countries sending their inventory of Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine, whose forces are trained in their flight and operation. 

The Soviet-era fighter planes are said to include MiG-29s and Sukhoi aircraft, and the American planes being sent to NATO countries are reportedly said to include U.S. F-16 fighter jets. 

“We are committed to providing additional authorities and appropriations at your request to finance such transfers in support of the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” the senators wrote. 

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), echoed that commitment in a letter to the administration on Monday, writing “I will support efforts in the Senate to implement measures to compensate our allies that provide their aircraft for Ukraine’s defense.” 

However, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that supplying Ukraine with additional fighter jets was unlikely to have a demonstrable impact on the trajectory of the war. 

“It just feels to me at best it’s going to help prolong it a little bit more,” he said. 

He argued that the U.S. should be more focused on implementing additional sanctions and developing an idea for a negotiated outcome to the conflict. 

The Biden administration is currently considering whether to curb U.S. imports of Russian oil to further squeeze Russia’s economy. It’s unclear whether European nations, which are more reliant on Russian oil and gas, could also follow suit.

“Putin’s going to have to choose between his imperial ambitions and his economy,” O’Hanlon said. “We should force him to make that choice.” 

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