Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, arrives for a Democratic policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Angus King said Wednesday that the U.S. can up its military assistance to Ukraine without a no-fly zone after the Ukrainian president implored Congress to do more to help his country, which has been under Russian attack for three weeks.

The Maine senator’s comments reflect general consensus in Washington that U.S. troops are not going to become directly involved in the Russia-Ukraine war and that the American response must consider how to avoid direct conflict with Russia.

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, spoke with reporters Wednesday after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed members of Congress by video call. In a roughly 18-minute speech that included a graphic video depicting the human toll of Russian attacks on his country, Zelenskyy implored the U.S. to do more to assist Ukraine, including renewing calls for a no-fly zone.

Policymakers here so far rejected such calls, and King reiterated his concerns on Wednesday, saying that a no-fly zone risked escalating the conflict, a dangerous move given that Russia possesses nuclear weapons. He also said shutting down the airspace would have limited benefit, as much of the devastation in Ukraine has been caused by Russian missiles or rockets fired from the ground.

“The utility of a no fly zone in terms of actual protection of Ukrainian people would be very limited,” King said. “On the other hand, a no fly zone — in a practical sense — means American or NATO pilots shooting down Russian pilots, and the chances of that leading to a serious escalation are very significant.”

Instead, King said the U.S. should supply Ukraine with more anti-aircraft equipment, along with javelin missiles that can target tanks or armored vehicle carriers. Such equipment is among what was included in an $800 million assistance package announced by President Joe Biden  shortly after Zelenskyy’s speech.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have generally been united in calling for more military aid for Ukraine, with Sen. Susan Collins joining a group of Republican senators last week calling on Biden to facilitate the transfer of Polish fighter jets. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, and a bipartisan group of representatives similarly called for more anti-aircraft systems and planes last week.