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Stoltenberg says NATO members agree no alliance planes should fly over Ukraine

Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. (NATO/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance’s members agree that its planes should not fly in Ukraine’s airspace and that its troops should not be present on the ground in Ukraine during its conflict with Russia, despite pleas from Kyiv to enforce a no-fly zone over the country.

Speaking in Brussels on March 4 after meeting with foreign ministers from NATO members, Stoltenberg again called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop his unprovoked war against Ukraine “immediately, and without conditions.”

Stoltenberg admitted that Russia is likely to intensify its attack on Ukraine, which began on February 24, with the coming days “likely to be worse.”

Diplomatic language and financial and other sanctions have hardened amid mounting civilian and other casualties and huge refugee flows from Putin’s invasion.

“NATO is not part of the conflict,” alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of the meeting. “We do not seek war, conflict with Russia. At the same time, we need to make sure there is no misunderstanding about our commitment to protect all allies.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed that NATO “seeks no conflict” but is “ready for it.”

Multiple NATO members have said they are united against Russian aggression but expressed unwillingness to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, whose officials have pleaded for the move to allow them to counter more numerous Russian forces.

Ukraine neighbors NATO members Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.

Blinken and Stoltenberg also noted the overnight Russian shelling and seizure of a Ukrainian nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhya, which embattled Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called part of a strategy of “nuclear terrorism” by Putin.

As the NATO meeting convened, Zelenskiy warned from Kyiv that only a no-fly zone will “guarantee that Russia won’t bomb” Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure.

Nuclear officials have said they have not detected any radiation leaks at Zaporizhzhya.

Zelenskiy adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak told reporters in Kyiv that Russia was “fighting with a deliberate violation of all conventions, laws, and rules of war” and clearly “could not help knowing what threatens Ukraine and, frankly, the whole of Europe, with a large-scale tank attack directed against the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.”

Stoltenberg condemned attacks on civilians and said those and the attack on Zaporizhzhya show “the recklessness of this war and the importance of ending it and the importance of Russia withdrawing all its troops and engaging in good faith in diplomatic efforts.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba this week pledged to raise the issue of a no-fly zone over Ukraine when he joins the NATO meeting.

NATO governments, including the United States, have suggested that is unlikely, as it could put their forces in direct conflict with Russia’s military.

On March 4, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte repeated that warning.

“I believe that all encouragements for NATO to get involved into the military conflict now are irresponsible,” said Simonyte, whose country shares a nearly 300-kilometer with Russia and has consistently warned of Moscow’s increasingly bold challenges toward the international community.

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said on March 4 that NATO would discuss “all scenarios” to stop the war. But she added that the alliance wants to “avoid triggering an international conflict.”

Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said that “we need to rethink everything” in light of the current conflict. He said NATO should reconsider its posture on its eastern flank, where Romania has a 600-kilometer-plus border with Russia.

Aurescu said countries need to adapt to Belarus “becoming a military district of Russia.”

Thousands of Russian troops staged offensives from southern Belarus, which is only about 150 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has kept a tight lid on Belarus for nearly three decades and relies more heavily on Moscow’s support since a flawed election two years ago, repeated his claims on March 4 that Belarus’s military was not participating in Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.

Lukashenka said he had spoken with Putin earlier in the day.

Blinken discussed additional security, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine in a conversation overnight with Kuleba, the State Department said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock declared solidarity with the Ukrainian people and said Putin’s war “is also bringing ruin upon his own country.”

Baerbock vowed at the NATO meeting that Europe would “take further measures that specifically target Putin’s center of power.”