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NATO and U.S. see darker days ahead in Ukraine, rule out no-fly zone

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 4 said that a no-fly zone over Ukraine could lead to a “full-fledged war in Europe.” (Video: The Washington Post)

BRUSSELS — The war in Ukraine will probably become even more punishing for civilians, as Russia employs brutal tactics it has used to deadly effect in other conflicts, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday, promising support for Ukrainians but ruling out the establishment of a no-fly zone.

“The terrible expectation is that the suffering we’ve already seen is likely to get worse before it gets better,” Blinken told reporters in Brussels. “When we say it is likely to get worse, it’s unfortunately based on everything we know about President Putin’s methods when it comes to seeking to subjugate another country to his will. We saw it in Chechnya. We’ve seen it in Syria.”

Blinken spoke following talks with foreign ministers from the European Union, NATO and the G-7 bloc on the first day of a European tour aimed at illustrating Western unity in opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As the conflict enters its second week, Ukrainian cities are being shelled and an exodus of civilians continues.

In photos: More then 1 million refugees have fled Ukraine

Blinken, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg did earlier in the day, pledged continued support for Kyiv but ruled out the possibility that NATO would establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a step that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged Western partners to take.

Both Blinken and Stoltenberg said enforcement would require sending NATO aircraft into Ukrainian airspace to shoot down Russian jets — something the alliance is unwilling to do.

“That could lead to a full fledged war in Europe,” Blinken said. “President Biden has been clear that we are not going to get into a war with Russia.”

Zelensky on Friday criticized NATO’s decision in a speech published by the presidency.

“Knowing that new strikes and casualties are inevitable, NATO deliberately decided not to close the sky over Ukraine,” he said in a video posted to his Telegram channel. “Today the leadership of the alliance gave the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages, refusing to make a no-fly zone.”

Throughout his rapid-fire meetings, Blinken praised nations in Europe and beyond for the unprecedented avalanche of sanctions and economic penalties unleashed on Russia in recent days, and for the new military support a host of countries have pledged to Ukraine’s pro-Western government, whose military is outmatched in size and weaponry by Moscow.

In just 72 hours, Europe overhauled its entire post-Cold War relationship with Russia

Without a united Western front, Blinken and his counterparts repeated, Russia’s action could not only yield a sustained human catastrophe, but shake the foundations of European security established over decades.

Speaking during a break in his talks, Blinken recounted that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who joined one of the discussions by video link, had shown the group a photograph of a man in Ukraine grieving over his dead child, whose corpse was covered in a blood-spattered sheet.

The photo was “a reminder that even as we talk about these weighty issues of war and peace, what this is really about is the lives of men, women, children — hundreds, thousands of individual human tragedies inflicted by Vladimir Putin and his war of choice on Ukraine and its people,” Blinken said, appearing momentarily choked up. “We can’t lose sight of that fact.”

But the leaders drew a line at direct military involvement in the burgeoning conflict, wary of taking moves that Russia could describe as a provocation or pretext for widening the war.

“We understand the desperation,” Stoltenberg said earlier in the day when asked about a potential no-fly zone. “But we also believe that if we did that, we would end up with something that could lead to a full-fledged war in Europe, involving much more countries and much more suffering.”

Stoltenberg said NATO was taking steps to reinforce its eastern flank and would now work more closely with Finland and Sweden, which are not alliance members. He said members will offer additional support for non-NATO countries that may feel newly vulnerable to Russian aggression, such as Georgia, Moldova and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO, said a no-fly zone proposal would probably meet political opposition in Western nations.

“NATO has been walking a thin line, because it has to be as supportive as possible of Ukraine, but the red lines have been drawn — by the United States, first — that there’s to be no military engagement in Ukraine,” he said.

To impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine would require Biden and other leaders to “level with their own people, and to be aware that this might put us at war with Russia,” he continued.

In Europe, Blinken seeks to telegraph Western unity to Putin

After their meeting, the ministers from the G-7 bloc — which includes the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Britain and Japan — criticized Russia’s shelling of a nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

“Any armed attack on and threat against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes constitutes a violation of the principles of international law,” they said.

Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign affairs chief, said Russian was conducting the war in a “barbarian” way. “This is Putin’s war,” he said. “And Putin has to stop this war.”

European diplomats continue to weigh further measures to increase economic pressure on Putin, officials said, including potential steps to reduce reliance on Russian energy supplies.

On Twitter on Friday, Kuleba thanked NATO members for their support but urged them to do more. His message to them, he said: “Act now before it’s too late. Don’t let Putin turn Ukraine into Syria.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.