Former NATO commander calls for limited no-fly zone

On Balance with Leland Vittert

(NewsNation) — The former supreme allied commander of NATO says a humanitarian no-fly zone — at a minimum — should be considered as leaders meet in Europe this week.

Retired Gen. Phil Breedlove told NewsNation’s Leland Vittert on Monday’s “On Balance” broadcast that there’s “no way forward without risk.”

You can read a transcript of the conversation below. It has been edited for clarity.

Leland Vittert: Joining us now — former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Philip Breedlove. General, good to see you, sir. We appreciate it. There are 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe, that’s a drop in the bucket (compared) to what used to be there. Is it enough if the Russians decide they want to escalate things?

Philip Breedlove: No, it’s not enough, but I don’t think that we are advertising that it’s enough. It would be enough if we needed them right away. But we would still need more troops, more capability to come from America if we were to have a Russian problem in NATO.

The state of the war as of March 21, 2022

Vittert: I wanted to talk a little bit just about the ground truth, because this is something you studied so well, and know Ukraine so well, and the Russian military. There’s lot of discussion of these 40,000 Ukrainians in the east, these were the best the Ukrainians had. They’re pinned down, they’re now being pinched by the Russians, both from the north and from the south. Is there a chance we’re going to see a wholesale slaughter of Ukrainian troops in the next week or so?

Breedlove: I don’t think so, Leland. I actually talked to one of my Ukrainian friends on the ground there about that very possibility, and they’re doing pretty good there. They understand exactly where they are, and they are a good force. I would just like to point something out on the battle map. If you look at all of those red areas around there, and especially the red areas in the south around Mariupol and north of Crimea, these pictures are important, but they’re a little bit misleading. The Russians are holding the roads, and some of the smaller towns but they’re not holding the land in between the roads. The Ukrainians are in those lands, and they are doing some work on the Russians in their rear areas and their supply lines. So yes, this is important to show sort of the limit of the advance of those armies on the ground. But the Russians are not holding all of that ground.

Vittert: You make a great point … the Russians have had issues with their supply lines to begin with. If the Ukrainians can harass them and disrupt them, all the better. I want to get you on some of the pictures that we’ve seen both out of Mariupol where there is a siege and these just sort of horrific images of slaughter of civilians by the Russians. It’s meant that so many commentators on television, even somebody like [NBC’s] Chuck Todd, who’s been through this before, are calling to “do something.”

Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press: Look what they’re doing tomorrow. Whoa, look what they’re doing. They’re attacking civilians. How long is NATO going to sit back and watch Russia intentionally target civilians?

Vittert: Is there enough time and attention being given to the “what happens if NATO actually does something” part of this?

Breedlove: Well, first of all, I just want to thank that commentator, because those are words I said several weeks ago. How many Ukrainians are going to have to die before we start paying attention to this wholesale slaughter, this criminal attack, on the people of Ukraine? Russia has found they cannot fight Ukraine’s army the way they want to in the open. Ukraine is fighting this really well-tuned skirmishing rear attack kind of fight and it’s frustrated the Russians completely. And that’s why they’re going to this wholesale annihilation of cities and and targeting things that are clearly — absolutely clearly — civilian.

Vittert: It’s a great point. Doing something though that actually means something to the Russians and to the civilians is a no-fly zone, it would probably be the first step. The president’s heading to to Brussels, and he’s obviously gonna meet with your successor, the new supreme allied commander. What is that allied commander going to say to the president, when the president says, “Can we do a no-fly zone and what are the risks?”

Breedlove: Well, I hope that he does get to have that conversation. I’m afraid that right now, that option is closed out here in the United States. And so my hope and prayer is that he actually will talk to [Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Tod D. Wolters] about that. And I think that the SACEUR is going to tell him that there is no way forward without risk. Yes, there are risks which are held in doing the humanitarian no-fly zone that we’re talking about now, which is very, very different and less bellicose than the military no-fly zone, which was what I originally advocated for. But now I hope they get to have that conversation and talk about the risks that are involved.

Vittert: I have to press you a little bit, general, because as you point out, the horrific scenes make us want to do something. As Americans, we believe in doing things. The U.S. military signs up to protect innocent civilians, both Americans and those overseas. And if we protect those overseas, we’re less likely to be hit at home. But at some point, a no-fly zone, humanitarian or not, if it’s going to be enforced, you’re going to have U.S. aircraft taking on Russian aircraft over the skies of Ukraine. How does that not escalate? How does the president justify that to the rest of NATO?

Breedlove: It is absolutely a risk. But the humanitarian no-fly zone can be constructed in a way the ROE, rules of engagement, such that we would not fire on anyone, unless a couple of things happen. One, we are fired upon, or two, the enemy fires upon the civilians, which we have seen now multiple times. When humanitarian relief is trying to either go in or come out of the cities, the Russians fire on the humanitarian columns. And so that is what we would seek to avoid with a humanitarian no-fly zone.

Vittert: General … George Will made a great point. The Secret Service is not sleeping much over the next couple of days sending the president of the United States 200 miles from an active war zone. What are we not seeing behind that’s going to be going on over the next week from a NATO perspective and from a U.S. military perspective?

Breedlove: Well, I think we’re going to be on some very high vigilance and alert. I don’t know if you’re tracking but it appears we may have had a Russian remotely piloted aircraft that wandered into Polish airspace a little. The Russians are getting a little sloppy over there and I think that we’re going to have to be laser-focused.

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