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Stoltenberg: Ukraine No-Fly Zone Would Force NATO to Attack Russia

By James Careless, CDR Ottawa Bureau Chief

The imposition of a no-fly zone in Ukraine, even with the best of humanitarian intentions, would require NATO to attack Russia and risk World War Three.

That was the stark message delivered by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in conversation with former Canadian NATO ambassador Kerry Buck, during Day One of the three-day Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence. It is being hosted by the Conference of Defence Associations and the CDA Institute March 9-11,2022.

Speaking with Buck over an internet link, Stoltenberg deplored the “heinous” treatments being meted out by Russian army invaders on Ukrainian civilians. But he insisted that attempting to protect these victims by imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine would only make matters much, much worse.

“Everyone has to understand that it’s not only about declaring a no-fly zone: It has to be imposed,” the NATO Secretary General explained. “The only way to impose a no-fly zone in a hostile environment, as we see in Ukraine now, is to massively attack Russian air defence systems. We cannot operate a no-fly zone with all of the Russian air defence systems intact. So a no-fly zone would require massive attacks on Russian air defence systems, and it’ll require that we are ready to engage directly in confrontation with Russian planes. A no-fly zone entails NATO massively attacking Russian air defence systems in Ukraine, in Belarus and Russia. It entails direct confrontation between NATO air capabilities and Russian air capabilities.”

The consequences of enforcing a no-fly zone in this manner “will significantly escalate the war they’re fighting in Ukraine, and also risk a full-fledged war in Europe involving NATO allies; NATO against Russia,” Stoltenberg concluded. “That will lead to so much more human suffering, civilian casualties, destruction, and it’ll be extremely dangerous.”

This is why NATO allies have made the “painful decision” not to heed Ukrainian President Zelensky’s heart-wrenching pleas for a no-fly zone over his war-torn country. “We need to make sure that this conflict ends,” said Stoltenberg. “We have to avoid that it expands, escalates, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Jens Stoltenberg’s comments in conversation with former Ambassador Buck echoed the tone of his Keynote Address prior to their talk.

“Russia has shattered peace in Europe,” said Stoltenberg in his opening remarks. “President Putin has instigated a brutal war against a peaceful sovereign Ukraine simply because it … chooses its own path: The path of democracy and freedom. President Putin’s war is not only against international law. It seeks to destroy the entire international rules-based order on which our peace and security depend. Our message to President Putin is clear: Stop this war, withdraw your forces, and engage in diplomacy.”

According to Stoltenberg, the fact that Putin feels emboldened to devastate Ukraine with impunity signals a fundamental shift in international relations – one that threatens the global order’s very foundations. “We are faced with a new reality, a new security environment, a new normal,” he said during his conservation with Buck. “The illegal brutal invasion of Ukraine demonstrates this very clearly, because what we see now is that Russia is more openly contesting core values for our security, including the right of a nation to choose their own path … and they’re demonstrating their will to use force to obtain their objectives.”

A case in point: “President Putin has clearly said that it will be very serious if Finland and Sweden decide to apply for NATO membership, and he has threatened them with what he call ‘military technical consequences’,” said Stoltenberg. “This goes beyond Ukraine: This is about denying every nation in Europe the right to choose their own path and to become NATO members if they so want.”

Russia is also contesting NATO’s right to protect its existing members, he added. Citing a written proposal for a new NATO/Russia security arrangement that Russia submitted in December 2021, Stoltenberg noted that “one of the provisions is that we should remove all NATO troops and all NATO infrastructure from all countries that have joined NATO after 1997. That means 14 out of the 30 members we have in NATO.” Such a move, which NATO has rejected, would turn these 14 allies into “some kind of second class members”.

Another reality of the ‘new normal’ is the tight working relationship between Russia and China, who are “now operating more closely together, exercising more closer together, interacting militarily and politically more closely together,’ said Stoltenberg. “So we have two authoritarian powers which are challenging the rules-based order, who are openly against our core values of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, democracy, the rule of law – and oppressing those values in Hong Kong and in Ukraine and many other countries.”

“This is the new normal. This is the challenge we have to step up to. And that’s exactly what we are doing, Europe and North America standing together.”

Former Ambassador Buck then raised the issue of nuclear war, the threat of which Putin has been brandishing as a weapon of international intimidation since Ukraine was invaded. In addressing this issue, Secretary General Stoltenberg’s distain and disgust for Russia’s de facto dictator was clear for all to see.

“President Putin’s rhetoric on nuclear issues, his messages that we will see consequences which history has never seen before, and the way he has also directly referred to and demonstrated in different presentations the new nuclear capabilities of Russia — including hypersonic glide vehicles and other very advanced weapons systems that can carry nuclear weapons – is reckless and dangerous,” Stoltenberg said.

This rhetoric contradicts Russia’s official policy on nuclear war, the Secretary General noted. “Not so many weeks ago, Russia signed together with all the permanent members of the UN Security Council a declaration where they restated that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought,” said Stoltenberg. “And then the next day, President Putin issues this reckless nuclear rhetoric which is contradicting the message of never fighting a nuclear war.”

As for NATO’s response to Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling? Although the alliance would like to achieve an end to nuclear weapons through disarmament, “as long as there are nuclear weapons, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance,” Stoltenberg declared. “We just don’t believe in a world where NATO gets rid of our nuclear weapons and then Russia, China, North Korea keep theirs. That’s not a safer world. The way to reach a safer world without nuclear weapons … is balanced, verifiable, arms control. We are ready to that, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, we have to make sure that we have a nuclear deterrent, which is safe and secure and effective.”

In delivering his answers without hesitation or obfuscation, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg came across as being very clear, calm, and well-seasoned in his views. Judging by his responses, NATO knows exactly where it stands with respect to President Putin’s Ukrainian invasion. What remains to be seen is how seriously Putin take Stoltenberg’s words, and NATO’s position.

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