What a no-fly zone over Ukraine would mean for the U.S. and NATO

There have been growing calls in recent days for the United States and NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Ukrainian President Zelensky reiterated the plea on Monday, but what is a no-fly zone and how would it work? For that we turn to two former U.S. ambassadors to NATO. Retired Army Lt. General Doug Lute and Kurt Volker join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the past few days there have been growing calls for the United States and NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy reiterated the plea today.

    But what is a no-fly zone and how would it work?

    For that, we get two views.

    Retired Army Lieutenant General Doug Lute served on the National Security Council staff during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He was also U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration. And Kurt Volker had a 23-year career as a diplomat. He too served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during the George W. Bush administration. He was also a special representative for Ukraine negotiations during the Trump administration.

    And we welcome both of you back to the "NewsHour."

    I am going to start with you, Kurt Volker.

    Let's talk about that no-fly zone. Explain exactly — you are one of the few people that has come out and been outspoken and saying that it is something that should be done.

    Why do you think so, and how exactly would it work? What is it?

    Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine: Right.

    Well, let's start with the moral obligation. When we see civilians being killed like this and what Putin is doing to Ukraine now, it's very reminiscent of the worst days of the 1930s and what Hitler did in Europe. And we told ourselves, never again. So

    And we need — we have a requirement to do something here. We have done no-fly zones in the past. Every circumstances is different. We have done them in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Northern Iraq.

    But the whole principle behind it is humanitarian. It is to save civilian lives, prevent them from being bombarded by the sky. And I think, in this case, we would have to do it differently than in other cases. We would essentially be telling a Putin that we are not going to attack Russian ground targets unless fired upon, we're not going to attack Russian aircraft unless they come into the zone and refuse to leave.

    We just want to create a clear space where there are no attacks against civilians to allow humanitarian assistance to flow and civilians to leave safely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what spaces would those be?

  • Kurt Volker:

    I would say this should be over Kyiv, the largest population center in Ukraine, and west of there in Western Ukraine, keeping it away from Russia's borders.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Doug Lute, what do you make of this?

    I'm not able to hear.

    Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.), Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Sorry. Sorry, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There we go.

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    We should be going every possibility, along the lines that Kurt said, to relieve the humanitarian situation, which is atrocious, and uncalled for, and amoral. But we should do so in ways that don't risk the broadening of the conflict.

    Look, the reality is that most of the human tragedy, most of the civilian casualties in Ukraine, are caused not by the Russian air force, which would have something to do with a no-fly zone, but rather by ground forces, so artillery, rocket and missile fire.

    So I don't think the no-fly zone would have much to do with the humanitarian situation. Furthermore, the Russian air force is among the most ineffective parts of the campaign right now. So, again, it's not going to have a big impact on the humanitarian situation.

    It does, however, have a big impact in terms of broadening the conflict. Somebody has to impose the no-fly zone. I would not trust some sort of bargain with Vladimir Putin that he would abide by rules having to do with a no-fly zone.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    In classic terms, that no-fly zone requires taking out, attacking opposing air defense systems.

    That would put the forces of the no-fly zone in direct contact with the Russians.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's take those points one at a time.

    Back to you, Kurt Volker, on Doug Lute's that much of the — what's going on right now in Ukraine is on the ground, that there's not much air action, so this wouldn't make that much difference?

  • Kurt Volker:

    The Ukrainians have taken out, I believe the number now is 49 fixed-wing aircraft. So, yes, the Russians have been using them. Yes, the Ukrainians have been doing well.

    But it does mean that the air force is part of this. He's absolutely right it is not the main part of it now, but it's what the Ukrainians are asking for. And they will do the ground part. Their armed forces, their military, their people are ready and, in fact, effectively resisting the Russians on the ground. And that will continue.

    This airspace safety is something that I think the people of Ukraine would see as extremely important for their freedom of movement and ability to get to safety.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that point, Doug Lute?

    And then I do want to go back to Kurt Volker on your point about the larger — widening the conflict.

    But what about the people of Ukraine seeing it as being the West supporting them?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    Well, clearly, Western or American air support in support of the Zelenskyy regime, in support of the Ukrainian people would be a major plus-up for Ukrainian people.

    But I think there's an American interest here. There's a NATO interest here, too. And the countervailing interest is not to broaden the conflict and not to become a direct participant, a protagonist in this war.

    Why? Because of the very high potential that that direct conflict could lead to unintended consequences and an escalation that could take us all the way up the chain.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Kurt Volker, speak to that point, that once you get — and once you have U.S. planes involved, you're risking a wider, much wider conflict with the — between the U.S. and Russia.

  • Kurt Volker:


    First off, we have to take that very seriously. This is not something you do lightly or not something you do half-heartedly. It's a serious risk. So we have to pay attention to that.

    But a couple of points on this. One, Vladimir Putin's forces are doing badly in Ukraine as it is without any outside help. The last thing Vladimir Putin wants is to widen the war. He doesn't want to bring in the U.S. or other NATO countries that would make his effort harder. So he's going to be very careful about what he does if we do something like this.

    The second thing is that, if Putin succeeds in overtaking Ukraine, against all of our judgment, all of our moral sense of what is right or fair, and takes over Ukraine, he will move to the next place. He will move to Moldova. He will intimidate Georgia. There's a risk of the Baltic states.

    So, at some point, we're going to have to confront Vladimir Putin. I would much rather do it when we have a Ukrainian government and a Ukrainian military ready to fight than wait until we are on much worse footing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Doug Lute, what about that?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    Well, I think Kurt just made my point.

    If the aim here is to confront Vladimir Putin in the air over this — in the skies of Ukraine, then I think a no-fly zone would accomplish that. But I don't think that's in our interests.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    Because it runs the risk, again Judy, of this unintended escalation of the war.

    Once we start direct contact with the Russians, there is no telling where that ends. And I certainly would not — I certainly would not trust the word of Vladimir Putin to abide by some sort of humanitarian gesture by way of the no-fly zone.

    Look, we couldn't trust him in any of his statements over the last decades. And he told us as well that he wouldn't invade Ukraine. So I don't think there's any trust here to be had.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Kurt Volker, there clearly would be the risk of this spinning out of control. And we hate to think about nuclear, but that's part of the equation, isn't it?

  • Kurt Volker:

    It certainly is.

    And, as I said, we have to take this very seriously. I'm not suggesting that anybody trusts Vladimir Putin. I'm suggesting that Vladimir Putin can read the lines on the battlefield, and realize that he does not want U.S. forces engaged.

    If there is any nuclear use — I think this is something that we need to communicate very clearly — there should be never any use of nuclear weapons. We don't want to do it. We don't want to see Russia do it. And if there is, that is something that we would very firmly oppose, and Vladimir Putin should know that.

    We don't want this — as everyone has said, we don't want this to get out of hand or any larger than what it is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to ask both of you about one other thing, and that is the plan or conversation, now serious discussion, Doug Lute, about having Poland provide planes to the Ukrainians that they could use, which would then be replenished — or that Poland would then be resupplied with U.S. planes.

    But what about that scheme?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    Well, I doubt that the first part of that swap, Judy, would have a major impact.

    These are Soviet vintage aircraft that the Poles are offering to the Ukrainians. And there are a lot of questions, a lot of complexities. Are there Ukrainian pilots available? Are there Ukrainian air bases available? Who's going to provide the munitions? Who's going to do the maintenance for these aircraft? So, this is no simple — simple swap.

    The second part of the deal, however, I'm very attracted to. And that's the notion that, if there are American F-16s available to provide today to our Eastern European allies, then we should be making that move immediately.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And very quickly, Kurt Volker, do you see this as making a difference or not?

  • Kurt Volker:

    First off, I do see it as making a difference.

    And on Doug's points about part one, Ukrainians are already flying MiG-29s. They do have trained pilots. And they are flying out of Ukrainian airspace and Ukrainian airfields. So this would be an additive element to what the Ukrainians are already able to do. That would be important.

    Unfortunately, I have learned this evening that the Poles are now saying that this is not going to happen. I think that's a shame. And I think we should be looking at other alternatives, such as Slovakia and Romania, because the overall package is a good one to get more capability to the Ukrainians.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the conversation is so important at a time when people are feeling desperate as they watch what's going on. And no question that's how many Ukrainians are feeling right now.

    Doug Lute, Kurt Volker, thank you both very much.

  • Kurt Volker:

    Thanks, Judy.

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