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Pressure mounts on the U.S. and Western allies to help Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As we heard from Ryan Lucas, a top Ukrainian official says a human catastrophe is unfolding in the southern city of Mariupol. Pressure is mounting on the U.S. and NATO allies to do more militarily to curb the bloodshed on the ground. This week, the U.S. rejected Poland's plan to send fighter jets to Ukraine. So what can the Ukrainians expect in the way of military assistance as Russian forces bear down on Kyiv and other major cities? Joining me now is Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. Admiral Kirby, good morning. And thank you for being on the program.

JOHN KIRBY: Good morning, Leila. It's good to be with you.

FADEL: So as I mentioned, I'm here in Ukraine. And everyone we speak to, from top officials to regular citizens, want more from the West, namely a no-fly zone, as Ukraine's president has asked for. Why is that off the table?

KIRBY: Well, a no-fly zone has to be enforced. And the key word about that is force. You have to be willing to engage in armed force to defend a no-fly zone. It is basically combat. You have to be willing to shoot down other aircraft. And you have to be willing to be shot at. And our view is that puts the United States in direct military confrontation with the Russians. And that has a very, very strong potential of escalating this conflict well beyond what it already is. And it's already devastating. We understand that. But having U.S. aircraft in the air in combat versus Russian aircraft and pilots is only going to escalate this conflict. And that's not - not only is that not good for our national security interests, it's not good for Europe. And it's absolutely not going to be good for the Ukrainians to have this war get bigger, broader and deadlier.

FADEL: Well, this moment is also, as you mentioned, really not good for the Ukrainians. Is there a red line for the U.S. and NATO allies that would prompt military engagement in the form of a no-fly zone?

KIRBY: The president has been clear. Commander in chief has made it very clear. There will be no U.S. troops fighting in Ukraine. That includes in the skies over Ukraine. Again, we have to be very careful that we don't make decisions, we don't take actions, that escalate this conflict between two nuclear-powered nations, the United States and Russia. I think we can all understand that an escalation here, again, would not be - not only unhelpful to our national security interest, but to the interests of everybody in Europe, including those in Ukraine. So we are not going to be putting U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine to fight in this war. And this president continues to believe that that would be a recipe for a much, much broader war and, again, not in the interests in the people of Ukraine.

FADEL: A very dangerous moment. Where is the U.S. planning - I mean, what is the U.S. planning to supply to Ukraine in terms of heavy weaponry?

KIRBY: Well, it's not just planning, it's action. We're delivering - including over the last 24 hours, we've been delivering shipments of arms and material that we know that the Ukrainians need and want and are using quite effectively. And there's more shipments coming. And it's not just from us...

FADEL: And specifically, sir...

KIRBY: ...It's from 14 other nations. I'm sorry?

FADEL: Specifically, Admiral, we've spoken to Ukrainian fighters that say their rifles are no match for Russian missiles, aircrafts. So are we talking anti-tank, anti-aircraft munitions here?

KIRBY: Sure. Yeah, we are talking anti-armor weapons. We're talking air defense weapons. And again, there's more coming. There are 14 other nations that are also delivering security assistance material to Ukraine at various points and through various avenues. And we are helping coordinate those deliveries. And they're going to continue for as long and as much as we're able to get them in there. And I would add that these systems that they're getting, they're using very, very effectively. They're using MANPADS, shoulder-fired air defense systems. They're using the Javelin anti-tank missile quite effectively. They are using their small arms and ammunition. And they have still in their possession a majority of their surface-to-air missile capability.

So we're also looking - as I've said recently, we're looking to other allies and partners who have surface-to-air missile capabilities that match what the Ukrainians are trained on and know how to use to see if they have additional systems to provide. And they are being very, very effective with their surface-to-air missile capability, both from a personal launch system as well as more mobile launch systems. The airspace over Ukraine is contested. The Russians certainly have more aircraft. They certainly have more missiles. And they've got the whole country blanketed virtually with surface-to-air missile capabilities. But that has not stopped the Ukrainians from being very effective in that realm.

FADEL: We have seen the Ukrainian armed forces put up a pretty hardy fight against a bigger military. And you mention these big concerns about a wider war here. We've been speaking to the displaced refugees, citizens of Ukraine, for almost two weeks now. And they all say a version of this. They feel like a pawn in a proxy war between superpowers, Russia, the U.S., China. They say choosing to turn to the West, wanting to be part of the West, is what brought this war upon them. And yet, they say they're not getting the Western help they feel they need, including that no-fly zone. What would you say to them?

KIRBY: Well, first of all, I think we've all watched, here at the Pentagon - just like elsewhere around the world - with awe and inspiration, the incredible bravery, the courage, the skill, the endurance, the resilience of the Ukrainian people as they fight for their country, fight for their fellow citizens. And sadly, as some of them are killed and wounded and have to flee their homes, none of this had to happen. This isn't a proxy war. This is a war of choice that Mr. Putin has perpetrated on the people of Ukraine. He had every option diplomatically to avoid this war before the 24th of February. And he basically ignored them and chose to go headlong into an armed conflict with a nation state which posed no threat to him or to anybody else. And so our message is, to the Ukrainians, we will stand with you. We know the sacrifices you are making. And we are going to be working, as we have for - so hard and for so long, to get them the kinds of material and assistance that they need to fight back, to get them the humanitarian assistance that we know they need right now in desperate measure...

FADEL: Yeah.

KIRBY: ...To work with neighboring countries, like Poland, to help with whatever we can do on the evacuation site.

FADEL: I just want to ask you one thing here before we run out of time.

KIRBY: Sure.

FADEL: We know what Russian forces are capable of. In the Russian region of Chechnya, we saw the capital city, Grozny, flattened. In Syria, Aleppo was hit with punishing airstrikes, thousands dead. At what point will Russia cross a red line for the U.S.? Is it a Grozny-like situation in Kyiv?

KIRBY: I think what's more helpful is not guessing and speculating about red lines, but looking for ways to continue - to end this war. So we are glad that the Russians and the Ukrainians have begun to have talks. We obviously know that they haven't gone anywhere in terms of real outcomes. But we're glad that there's still some diplomacy occurring. And what we're going to do is focus on making sure that the Ukrainians continue to defend themselves and that NATO can defend itself should there be any threat to NATO territory.

FADEL: Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. Thank you for taking the time.

KIRBY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU'S "THEY MOVE ON TRACKS OF NEVER-ENDING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.