NATO has rejected Ukraine’s appeal for a no-fly zone, prompting fierce criticism from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who said the move greenlighted Russia’s bombing campaign of his country.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, announced the decision following an urgent meeting of the 30-member alliance in Brussels.
He said helping Ukraine protect its skies from Russian missiles and warplanes would require NATO forces to shoot down Russian aircraft, a move that could result in a “full-fledged war in Europe involving many more countries”.
“We are not part of this conflict,” he said.
“We have a responsibility as NATO allies to prevent this war from escalating beyond Ukraine because that would be even more dangerous, more devastating and would cause even more human suffering.”
Ukraine’s president criticised the decision in a bitter and emotional speech.
“Today there was a NATO summit, a weak summit, a confused summit, a summit where it was clear that not everyone considers the battle for Europe’s freedom to be the number one goal,” Zelenskyy said a televised address late on Friday.
“Today, the leadership of the alliance gave the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages, having refused to set up a no-fly zone.”
Russia invaded Ukraine by land, sea and air on February 24, calling it a “special military operation” aimed at dislodging “neo-Nazis” ruling the country. The nine-day offensive has killed and wounded thousands of people and sent more than one million people seeking refuge across its borders.
Zelenskyy said NATO, too, now bore responsibility for the deaths in Ukraine.
“All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you, because of your weakness, because of your lack of unity,” he said.
‘Only Putin can end this’
Western nations have condemned Russia’s invasion, sending arms supplies to Ukraine and imposing the heaviest international economic sanctions against Moscow to date, including on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
But that has failed to stop the Russian onslaught.
On Friday, the West and its allies again promised Ukraine more military support – short of going to war – as well as more humanitarian aid and more essential supplies.
Antony Blinken, the United States’ secretary of state, speaking to reporters after the NATO meeting, said the alliance was committed to “doing everything we can to give the Ukrainian people the means to defend themselves against Russia”.
But “we also have a responsibility, as the secretary-general said, to ensure that the war doesn’t spill over even beyond Ukraine,” he said.
NATO will continue “to raise the cost for Putin”, he added.
“Unless the Kremlin changes course, it will continue down the road of increasing isolation and economic pain.”
Meanwhile, G7 countries said they would hold accountable those responsible for war crimes and refuse to recognise any Russian territorial gains.
European Union countries said separately that more punishment was coming, after the bloc already cut several Russian lenders from the SWIFT banking system, curbed trade with Moscow and targeted some of the wealth held by Russian oligarchs in the West.
But it was not clear when and what more sanctions the EU could agree on, given its reliance on Russian energy supplies, which think tank Eurointelligence said amount to $700m daily.
“It’s Putin’s war, and only Putin can end it,” said the top EU diplomat, Josep Borrell.
“If someone expects that sanctions can stop the war tomorrow, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”