Ukraine conflict must not spark NATO-Russia war: Stoltenberg to AFP

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
This handout photo taken and released on March 11, 2022 by the Turkish presidential press service shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shaking hand with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) during the opening of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum (ADF) in Antalya. (Photo: TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP)
ANTALYA, Turkey — NATO must not allow Russia's invasion of Ukraine to spill over into an open conflict between the alliance and Moscow, its chief Jens Stoltenberg said Friday, warning a no-fly zone would likely lead to full-scale war.اضافة اعلان

NATO's rejection of Ukrainian calls to provide air cover against Russian missiles and warplanes has drawn strong criticism from Kyiv, which accused the alliance of giving Moscow the GreenLight to press ahead with its assault. 

"We have a responsibility to prevent this conflict from escalating beyond Ukraine's borders to becoming a full-fledged war between Russia and NATO," the NATO secretary-general told AFP in an interview on the sidelines of a forum in Turkey.

He warned that a no-fly zone over Ukraine would "most likely lead to a full war between NATO and Russia," causing "more suffering, so much more death and destruction."

Stoltenberg said a no-fly zone over Ukraine would mean that NATO would have to take out Russian air defense systems in Ukraine and around Belarus and Russia. 

"It will mean that we need to be ready to shoot down Russian planes because a no-fly zone is not only something you declare, you have to impose it," he told AFP at the Antalya diplomacy forum organised by Turkey. 

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lashed NATO for ruling out a no-fly zone over his country, saying the Western military alliance knew further Russian aggression was likely.

"Knowing that new strikes and casualties are inevitable, NATO deliberately decided not to close the sky over Ukraine," he said.

Stoltenberg told AFP that the training of tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops by NATO member states in recent years, as well as the supply of military equipment, had proved "extremely important (for Ukraine's forces) in the fight against invading Russian forces."

But he added: "The most important thing is that President (Vladimir) Putin should end this senseless war," he said.

"Withdraw all its forces and engage in good faith in diplomatic, political efforts to find a political solution," said Stoltenberg.

'For Ukraine to decide'

He also praised Turkey's move to facilitate talks on Thursday between the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine in Antalya. 

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba held talks in Antalya in the first such high-level contact since Moscow invaded its neighbor.

But no progress was made in the talks, even on a 24-hour ceasefire.

NATO member Turkey has long sought to broker a solution through direct talks with Putin. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who mediated Thursday's tripartite talks in Antalya, said his Ukrainian counterpart Kuleba had reaffirmed that Zelensky was ready to meet with Putin. Lavrov had replied that Putin was not against it in principle.

"I think Turkey plays an important role in trying to facilitate some kind of strengthened political dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv," Stoltenberg said. 

Stoltenberg is due to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the Antalya forum. 

Asked about the prospects of NATO membership for Ukraine, Stoltenberg said it was up to Kyiv.

"It is for Ukraine to decide whether they aspire for membership or not. And then at the end of the day, it will be 30 allies to decide on the membership issue," he said. 

In an interview aired on ABC News, Zelensky said he is no longer pressing for NATO membership for Ukraine. This delicate issue was one of Russia's stated reasons for invading its pro-Western neighbor.

"We respect the Ukrainian decision, regardless of whether they apply or not apply for membership. This is a sovereign Ukrainian decision," Stoltenberg said. 

"The problem is that Russia doesn't respect that sovereignty. So they use military force against an independent sovereign nation because they don't like their decisions under the path they have chosen."

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