Concern regarding Russia’s intentions is at a higher level in the eastern nations of NATO than those to the west. On March 15, the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic risked a train ride into Ukraine to meet the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in Kyiv.
Those countries face the risk of being next in line if Russian expansionism continues as some expect it to. Vladimir Putin’s statements appear to threaten the Baltic states, and he seems to want to re-establish Russia’s dominance over other neighboring nations which was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Those states have substantial minorities of ethnic Russians and have experienced unrest in the past few years.
The potential for escalation increases when we consider the actions of the rank-and-file soldiers on the ground, who are cold and frightened. A single shot across an otherwise quiet but tense border, or a junior non-commissioned officer misunderstanding a particular situation and taking aggressive action, could initiate a fight that quickly escalates beyond the control of local commanders.
Zelensky has repeatedly called for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine. But NATO leaders have concluded, understandably, that this risks direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO forces, potentially leading to rapid escalation.
The same seems to apply to another of Zelensky’s requests the supply of aircraft to help the Ukrainian air force. But if NATO were to directly provide aircraft to Ukraine, Russia may very well conclude that this is offensive, rather than defensive, weaponry, and take action to stop the supply of planes. This may involve strikes on airfields where the planes are based for example, in Poland before they are moved to Ukraine.
There’s a chance that Zelensky has called for a NATO-sponsored no-fly zone precisely because he knows it would be impossible, allowing him to begin distancing himself from the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine.
This might give him the negotiating room to conclude an agreement with Russia. But at the same time, he reminded America in his speech to the US Congress of the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks. Zelensky is warning of the consequences of continued NATO inaction.