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The White House worries that imposing a no-fly zone could lead to a wider war

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukraine's president has been sharing videos and pictures of destroyed hospitals and calling on the West to impose a no-fly zone and do more to protect civilians. In Lviv, a Ukrainian fighter told me they're suffering intense losses. They can't fight Russian missiles with rifles, he says, and he feels the West hasn't done enough for Ukraine's fight against the invasion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) There is a nice proverb. I love God, but I feel like God doesn't like me enough.

FADEL: But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the Biden administration is worried doing more could lead to a wider war.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Antony Blinken was hosting his British counterpart at the State Department when Ukraine's president posted a video of a destroyed children's hospital in a besieged city in the south. The British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, said she was appalled

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LIZ TRUSS: And, of course, the attack on the hospital is absolutely abhorrent, reckless and appalling.

KELEMEN: But asked whether it's time for a no-fly zone, at least to protect humanitarian corridors, Truss said this.

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TRUSS: The reality is that setting up a no-fly zone would lead to a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, and that is not what we are looking at. What we are looking at is making sure that the Ukrainians are able to defend their own country with the best possible selection of anti-tank weapons and anti-air defense systems.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed that, saying the U.S. goal is to end the war, not to expand it.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: Introducing American service members in Ukraine on Ukrainian territory or American pilots into Ukrainian airspace, whether on a full or on a limited basis, would almost certainly lead to direct conflict between the United States, between NATO and Russia. And that would expand the conflict.

KELEMEN: Russia is mostly using artillery and missiles, not planes, to bombard Ukrainian cities. Still, the Biden administration's position is frustrating many U.S. lawmakers.

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JACKIE SPEIER: I believe that the American people think we need to do more.

KELEMEN: That's Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat, at a hearing this week.

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SPEIER: We're going to watch a genocide happen in Ukraine if we don't create our own red lines.

KELEMEN: At that same hearing, Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick said it's hard for many Americans to wrap their minds around the fact that the U.S. won't intervene in Ukraine because it is not a NATO member.

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BRIAN FITZPATRICK: I think everybody's struggling with that, particularly because we've had many, many non-NATO interventions in the past - Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Cameroon, Yemen, Korea, Syria, Kuwait, just to name a few. But the one difference is the nuclear capability.

KELEMEN: Russia has one of the world's largest nuclear arsenals, and Putin is threatening to use it.

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FITZPATRICK: So what we're getting asked a lot is, are we basically creating an incentive for a nuclear proliferation, because the message we're sending is if you have nuclear weapons and you're crazy, we're going to stand back on military intervention?

KELEMEN: Other members of Congress are encouraging the Biden administration to do something else. Ohio Senator Rob Portman pressed the top State Department official about Poland's offer to send its Soviet-era jets to Ukraine.

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ROB PORTMAN: The response that I've gotten from some in the administration is it might make Putin mad. You know, he has invaded his neighbor and he's killing innocent people, and everything makes him mad. I mean, he said the sanctions are an act of war. He gets mad over the Javelins and the Stingers.

KELEMEN: Poland blindsided U.S. diplomats this week by suggesting that the U.S. could help it transfer those planes to Ukraine. Secretary Blinken said there are logistical challenges, and Pentagon officials warned there are dangers because the Russians now have air defenses that cover much of Ukraine.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.