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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, meet NATO troops after a joint news conference at the Tapa Army Base in Estonia on March 1, 2022.Hendrik Osula/The Globe and Mail

NATO countries are not considering imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed, despite a plea from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said it would reduce the number of deaths.

Mr. Johnson ruled out a no-fly zone while speaking at a press conference at Estonia’s Tapa military base on Tuesday, where British troops are leading a NATO battle group. The news came as Russian military aggression is expected to increase, and after reports that Russia is indiscriminately bombing civilian areas.

“When it comes to a no-fly zone ... in the skies above Ukraine, we have to accept the reality that, that involves shooting down Russian planes,” Mr. Johnson said. “That is a very, very big step that is simply not on the agenda of any NATO country.”

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Such a move, he suggested, would be out of step with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s role as a defensive alliance. “This is a time where miscalculation and misunderstanding is all too possible,” Mr. Johnson said.

Engaging directly with the Russian military would require NATO members to go to their parliaments and peoples to get agreement for such a step, the British Prime Minister added.

In a video recorded Monday night, Mr. Zelensky said he believes “it is necessary to consider the full closure of the sky for Russian missiles, airplanes, helicopters.” At a subsequent speech to the European Union’s Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Zelensky told politicians to “prove that you are with us.”

“Prove that you will not let us go, do prove that you indeed are Europeans and then life will win over death and light will win over darkness.”

Prior to his stop in Estonia, Mr. Johnson travelled through Warsaw, Poland, where he was pushed by a Ukrainian journalist to explain his position on a no-fly zone. In response he said it would lead to direct combat with Russia and “the consequences of that would be truly very difficult to control.”

Mr. Johnson met with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the base, in a small town 145 kilometres west of the border with Russia. The leaders met for closed-door meetings and then held a press conference before speaking to troops crammed into a hangar shoulder-to-shoulder.

At the news conference both Ms. Kallas and Mr. Stoltenberg acknowledged that worse was still to come for the people of Ukraine. A massive contingent of Russian forces are moving in a convoy to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

Mr. Stoltenberg said that “column of heavy Russian armour” will bring “more death, more suffering and more civilian casualties.”

He continued: “This is horrifying, this is totally unacceptable and it is a blatant violation of international law.”

Before Mr. Zelensky’s overnight plea, Mr. Stoltenberg told NBC News that NATO had “no intentions” of moving into Ukraine either by ground or air. He was not asked directly about Ukraine’s request for a no-fly zone on Tuesday, but in his opening statements he underscored that NATO is a defensive alliance and said “we do not seek conflict with Russia.”

In Ottawa, Defence Minister Anita Anand said Canada also does not support imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

“NATO is a defensive alliance and putting in place a no-fly zone would be a severe escalation on the part of NATO and it is not on the table at the current time,” she said.

In the military hangar, young Estonian men, who are conscripted for up to 11 months, were mixed in with NATO forces from countries such as Britain, France and Denmark as they waited to hear from the leaders. All three were on hand to mark the arrival of some of the approximately 850 more British troops to the base, as well as a convoy of armoured vehicles.

Ms. Kallas called on NATO to develop a strategy that would ensure it is ready to defend the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), which she said were the “most vulnerable part of NATO.”

“Although there is no direct military threat at our borders, NATO must take a leap now and adapt rapidly to the new security situation. We must move from forward presence to forward defence and from air policing to air defence,” she said.

Stéfanie von Hlatky, director of Queen’s University’s Centre for International and Defence Policy, said NATO is staying solely focused on its “raison d’être” to protect the “territory and sovereignty of its 30 member states,” in part because of the risks of a no-fly zone escalating the war rather than simply tipping the balance of power in Ukraine’s favour.

“Putin is the leader of a country with nuclear weapons, and he is issuing nuclear threats in the context of this war,” Ms. von Hlatky said. “We have to be very careful about how direct military involvement might escalate the situation in ways that are both devastating, not only for Ukrainians, but more broadly speaking.”

She said the pressure from Mr. Zelensky’s appeal for more direct intervention might serve to push NATO countries to bolster their support in other areas, which she noted has already increased dramatically in the past weeks.

With report from Robert Fife and Nathan VanderKlippe.

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