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Foreign policy experts are calling for a limited no-fly zone

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The world is strong enough to close our skies. That is the plea from Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Russia continues to bombard his country, and he wants the international community to establish a no-fly zone to protect citizens. But the U.S. and allies are walking a fine line to support Ukraine without getting dragged into a direct war with Russia. And the Biden administration says a no-fly zone is a step too far. Here's Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: The only way to actually implement something like a no-fly zone is to send NATO planes into Ukrainian airspace and to shoot down Russian planes, and that could lead to a full-fledged war in Europe. President Biden has been clear that we are not going to get into a war with Russia.

MARTIN: More than two dozen foreign policy experts have signed a letter to the Biden administration calling for a so-called limited no-fly zone over Ukraine. Joining me now to talk about the proposal is one of the people who signed the letter, Evelyn Farkas. She was the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama administration.

Evelyn, thanks for being here.

EVELYN FARKAS: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: What would a limited no-fly zone look like in Ukraine?

FARKAS: Well, the idea here is to provide protection for humanitarian corridors that appear to be agreed at various points between Russia and Ukraine or between Russia and the international community. And as we know from our experience, sadly, watching how the Russians fight, starting in Chechnya in 1999, when Vladimir Putin came to power and more recently in Syria, the Russians will agree to a humanitarian corridor, and then they will actually bomb the civilians as they try to use that humanitarian corridor. It's incredibly cynical. It's, of course, a war crime. And so it backfires. If we want to let these starving - increasingly starving and desperate civilians in Ukraine live, we have to provide some kind of enforcement of any corridors that we agree to because otherwise we're just setting the people up for basically being picked off by artillery and aircraft from the sky.

MARTIN: And so this is a, quote, "limited" no-fly zone suggestion as opposed to a broader no-fly zone because you would direct this just to protect the humanitarian corridors. But do you have any reason to believe that Russia would abide by even a limited no-fly zone?

FARKAS: Right. I mean, that is, of course, the risk - that they wouldn't abide by it. And, of course, there is a risk to NATO pilots if they go and enforce it. The idea here is that there would be less of a likelihood that they would challenge it because they have agreed to the corridor itself, and they would have to agree to the no-fly zone as well. But I have to agree that it is difficult because, again, the Russians are not to be trusted. But if we want to do something to try to save lives, it might be worth the cost. And I don't believe that Vladimir Putin at this point in time wants a war with NATO, so that's another consideration. Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft also in Syria in 2015. It didn't lead to war between NATO and Russia. Of course, it was a completely different situation. But all these things need to be weighed.

And I think fundamentally what I want to say here and what my colleagues and I who signed the letter want to say is don't take anything off the table. Things are changing every day on the ground. We are going to be seeing people increasingly desperate. And we need to be creative and open to taking some risk to save lives.

MARTIN: So Russian President Putin has said explicitly countries involved in imposing a no-fly zone, limited or otherwise, would be considered participants in a military conflict. Are you saying then that the U.S. and NATO should be willing to just take that risk of even provoking a direct fight with a nuclear-armed Russia?

FARKAS: Well, I don't think we should try to provoke any kind of conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia. I don't think, though, that Vladimir Putin has the right to decide what is war and what is not. He's already declared our economic sanctions a war against Russia by the West and its allies outside of the West, so Japan, et cetera. So I think he throws these things around to try to deter us. And I think that's - again, the most important point here is let's not take anything off the table. And let's not tell Vladimir Putin what we won't do. Let's talk about what we might do. And let's be creative behind the scenes. And the answer may in the end not be a no-fly zone. It may be providing fighter aircraft, which apparently is also bogged down in international discussions.

MARTIN: Right.

FARKAS: But we need to help protect those people.

MARTIN: I want to ask about that because Ukrainians have requested fighter jets from the West. This is very complicated. At first, Poland said that they'd do it. They'd give their fighter jets to Ukraine. But then in this, like, surprise twist, they caught everyone off guard and saying instead they would send the planes to the U.S. airbase in Germany, and NATO would have to take responsibility for giving the planes to Ukraine. The Pentagon then said this plan is untenable. Do you think it's a mistake to turn down the Polish offer?

FARKAS: Well, I don't know what the background here of all the negotiations is. It's hard to judge from the outside. But clearly something needs to be done, and the Poles were trying to push our government to do something by making this public when clearly the United States was backing away from the arrangement. I think there's a little - likely there's a little too much lawyering going on. And, again, we are second-guessing ourselves with regard to the risk that we might be able to take because of Vladimir Putin's bellicose statements. But I think if we want to try to save lives, we need to be doing more to help the Ukrainians. And so I'm hopeful that the vice president may be able to unlock some kind of arrangement that will reduce the risk and, again, do something to protect innocent civilians.

MARTIN: You spent years analyzing Putin's threat level. How far do you think he's willing to go?

FARKAS: Well, unfortunately very far - but I don't really know how else to get him to back down, except to continue pressing him economically, diplomatically and militarily.

MARTIN: Evelyn Farkas is the former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. She served in the Obama administration. Thank you so much for talking with us this morning.

FARKAS: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.