Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations says a no-fly zone to protect Ukrainians from Russian aerial bombardment would need a buy-in from the Russians themselves to have any meaningful effect.
Bob Rae said a no-fly zone “is obviously a wonderful thing if it happens, but it requires a degree of consensus that simply doesn’t exist in this situation.”
Rae was speaking in an interview from New York earlier this week as calls intensified for NATO to close the skies above Ukraine to Russian war planes and helicopters.
On Wednesday, the Russian aerial bombardment of Ukrainian cities continued, killing scores of civilians and forcing an estimated 870,000 people to flood into other European countries as refugees. The carnage continued one day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued the latest of many pleas for a no-fly zone, this time in a television interview with NBC from what looked like a secure bunker somewhere in Kyiv.
“As far as a no-fly zone is concerned it would have helped a lot. This is not about dragging NATO countries into war. The truth is everyone has long since been dragged into war and definitely not by Ukraine, but by Russia — a large-scale war is going on,” Zelenskyy said in subtitled Ukrainian, clad in a green T-shirt and showing a few days of beard growth.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainians were ready to fight, but they could not fight alone. He said “that is why a no-fly zone to close the sky” is necessary.
The United States, Britain and Canada have ruled out a no-fly zone as too provocative because it would essentially lead to an all-out air war between NATO forces and Russia. Defence Minister Anita Anand said Tuesday that “putting in place a no-fly zone would be a severe escalation on the part of NATO and it is not on the table at the current time.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also raised the stakes by saying his military’s nuclear arsenal is now on alert.
That has not stopped some high-profile Canadians from taking to the airwaves and social media to push for a no-fly zone, including the former Canadian defence chief, retired general Rick Hillier, and former Conservative cabinet minister Chris Alexander, who also served as a senior UN representative in Afghanistan.
No-fly zones have been enforced in the past with great success, said Rae, pointing to the landmark effort in 1991 in the skies over northern Iraq to protect Kurds from a genocidal regime in Baghdad ruled by the dictator Saddam Hussein.
The United States, Britain and France patrolled the skies over northern Iraq, which kept Hussein’s war planes on the ground and left Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to wage a ground war for the survival of their people without having to endure hellfire from above.
“It’s important to remember that the successful no-fly zones have been carried out successfully because no one challenged the power of the country that was providing the air cover,” said Rae.
“For example, the Kurds in northern Iraq, the no-fly zone that was put in place … was allowed to be maintained, because it was respected by Hussein, was respected by the Russians, respected by the Chinese, respected by the Saudis, respected by everybody.”
That simply is not the case today in Ukraine, said Rae.
“One has to recognize what the risks of that would be,” he said.
On Wednesday, the UN General Assembly, in its first emergency session since 1997, voted by a wide margin to call on Russia to stop its attack and bring home its troops. The vote was 141 to 5 with 35 countries abstaining, and was non-binding but reflected widespread world condemnation. Cuba, a popular vacation spot for Canadian sunseekers, was one of the handful of countries that voted with Russia.
Meanwhile, negotiators from Ukraine and Russia were preparing to meet Thursday for the second time to find a way to end the war, but there was no sign either side would be able to find common ground.
In his recent televised interview, Zelenskyy questioned how meaningful talks could be held with Russia while his people were being bombed.
Russia’s bombardment on Ukraine has included cluster bombs, a cruel weapon that has been banned under a UN convention that neither Russia nor Ukraine has signed. Cluster bombs are munitions that arbitrarily scatter tiny bomblets and have a decades-long reputation for maiming and killing civilians, including children.
Some bomblets can lie unexploded for years, if not decades, and they have created generations of amputees in Asia and the Middle East, especially among children who are drawn to the often brightly coloured but deadly submunitions.
Mines Action Canada, which advocated for the international treaty to ban cluster bombs, denounced their use by the Russians on Wednesday, saying their use has resulted in civilian casualties in multiple Ukrainian cities, and follows Russian use of the weapon in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 and in Syria in 2015.
“Shopping mall parking lots, city streets and residential areas are now contaminated with unexploded submunitions. Canada can take action to help Ukrainian communities affected by cluster munitions by funding humanitarian mine action operators to carry out risk education and eventually clearance operations,” Paul Hannon, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement.
“Risk education, which warns people about dangerous explosive remnants of war like submunitions, is an urgent need as most civilians in Ukrainian cities have never seen these weapons before. These life-saving messages can be shared during the conflict through social media, radio and television so there is no time to waste.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Zelenskyy Wednesday to express solidarity and extend further support to the people in Ukraine.
A readout of their call said Trudeau commended Zelenskyy’s “outstanding bravery and front-line leadership, calling it inspirational for Canadians and people around the world.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trudeau said he thinks Putin has been surprised by the strength and unity of Western sanctions against him and his country.
Trudeau said Putin likely never imagined that Germany would freeze its lucrative Nord Stream 2 pipeline project with Russia or decide to send anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine.
“For Germany to cancel Nord Stream, to talk about shipping weapons … to Ukraine? These are things that I think have definitely taken aback the Russian system because we are so united in standing up, not just for Ukraine, but for the principles of democracy that matter so much.”
The decision to provide weapons marked a historic shift in German military policy that has its roots in consigning its Second World War aggression against Europe to the dustbin of history.
Trudeau echoed what Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday — that future sanctions against Russian business interests in Canada could cause some economic “collateral damage” domestically.
He said he may look at compensating some businesses but added that allies in Europe will feel the economic effects of sanctions much more than Canada.