US Says No to No-Fly Zone in Ukraine

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Two U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II aircraft prepare to land at the 86th Air Base, Romania
Two U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II aircraft assigned to the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, prepare to land at the 86th Air Base, Romania, Feb. 24, 2022. Aircraft and crews will work closely with Allies in the Black Sea region to reinforce regional security during the current tensions caused by Russia's continuing military build-up near Ukraine. (Ali Stewart/U.S. Air Force)

U.S. policymakers have rallied behind Ukraine as it faces Russia's assault, but there's one proposal to harden Ukraine that's facing bipartisan opposition: a no-fly zone.

Ukrainian leaders including President Volodymyr Zelensky have asked the United States and its allies to impose a no-fly zone to deny Russia one of its key advantages over Ukraine in its larger and more powerful air force.

But Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, as well as Biden administration officials, say enforcing a no-fly zone with the U.S. military would risk a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia, which in turn could lead to all-out war between the world's two largest nuclear powers.

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"In order to impose that no-fly zone, you have to enforce it," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. "And I think that puts American pilots in a difficult situation that could start a war with Russia. And I don't think that's in the United States' interest."

A week into Russia's invasion, Ukrainian forces have fared better than expected, holding onto Kyiv and frustrating Moscow, which has also been stymied by its own planning failures.

Russia has also not yet unleashed the full power of its air force on Ukraine, with a U.S. senior defense official telling reporters Tuesday that the Russians aren't "necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots."

But U.S. defense officials warn that Russia still has significant capabilities at its disposal that it has yet to use and that Russian leadership will learn from early setbacks to adjust their tactics, including turning to siege warfare that could level Kyiv.

    Ukrainian leaders are arguing they can build on their early successes and defeat Russia if the West establishes a no-fly zone.

    "We need the West to impose a no-fly zone over significant parts of Ukraine," Zelensky said in a statement to Axios on Monday. "Ukraine can beat the aggressor. We are proving this to the world. But our allies must also do their part."

    Zelensky also tweeted Tuesday that he "emphasized the need to close the sky over" Ukraine in a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

    The United States has deployed thousands of troops to reinforce NATO's eastern flank and bolster allies worried the Ukrainian conflict could spill over their borders.

    But President Joe Biden has insisted no U.S. troops will enter Ukraine. And administration officials this week are making clear that vow also extends to enforcing a no-fly zone, which could entail U.S. military aircraft shooting down Russian jets if they ignore the protected area.

    "A no-fly zone would require implementation," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. "It would require deploying U.S. military to enforce, which would be potentially a direct conflict and potentially war with Russia, which is something we are not planning to be a part of."

    Debates about a U.S. military-enforced no-fly zone have flared during other recent conflicts, particularly during the height of the Syrian civil war as advocates and policymakers sought ways to protect civilians. The Obama administration rejected proposals for a no-fly zone in Syria over concerns it could take tens of thousands of troops to enforce and risk a confrontation with Russia, which has forces in Syria supporting the regime.

    The United States and its allies did take part in establishing and maintaining no-fly zones in Bosnia in the 1990s, Iraq after the Gulf War, and Libya in 2011. A 2013 Congressional Research Service report on no-fly zones noted "many assess" strategic planning for those operations "was at best incomplete."

    Now, with the conflict in Ukraine raging, even those typically at odds with the Biden administration are warning that a potential no-fly zone could lead to a U.S.-Russia war.

    "If it was possible, I'd be for it, but it's impossible without causing a confrontation between U.S. forces and Russian forces, which has got to be avoided for obvious reasons," said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    Still, the idea has found support from a limited number of defense hawks. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who is in line to be the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee when Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., retires at the end of the year, said a no-fly zone is "something I wouldn't take off the table."

    "I think like-minded nations should explore that based on humanitarian concerns," Wicker said.

    While lawmakers are largely rejecting the idea of a no-fly zone, they are lining up behind providing more funding to deal with the crisis.

    The Biden administration last week asked Congress for $6.4 billion to respond to the invasion, including $3.5 billion for the Pentagon to cover the cost of the troop deployments and to restock U.S. weapons being shipped to Ukraine.

    Lawmakers in both parties have expressed support for more funding, but are debating specifics, such as whether to include it in a broader government spending bill or to move the Ukraine funding separately. Some lawmakers have also suggested going further than the administration requested, potentially as high as $10 billion.

    "We're going to work on a bipartisan, robust aid package with both military and security needs," Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday. "There are very good discussions going on about that right now."

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

    Related: US-Enforced No-Fly Zone over Syria Risks Conflict with Russia: Selva

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