An offer from Poland to donate MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine took US officials by surprise on Tuesday, raising fears the move could draw NATO allies into more direct conflict with Russia. Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in Warsaw on Wednesday for talks on how to help Ukraine counter Putin's aggression.
The Pentagon on Tuesday rejected Poland's surprise announcement that it would give the United States its MiG-29 fighter jets for use by Ukraine, describing the offer as untenable.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Poland's declaration that it intended to deliver the 28 jets to the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany raised the concerning prospect of warplanes departing from a US and NATO base to fly into airspace contested with Russia in the Ukraine conflict.
“We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,” Kirby said in a statement.
The Pentagon went further late on Wednesday, saying it would oppose any plan for NATO nations to provide fighter jets to Ukraine, calling it "high-risk".
The proposed gift of more warplanes would be a morale booster for Ukrainians under pounding Russian assault for nearly two weeks. But it also raises the risk of the war expanding beyond Ukraine.
Russia has declared that supporting Ukraine’s air force would be tantamount to joining the war, and could spur retaliation.
White House officials were blindsided by the Polish announcement on the MiGs. The proposal did not come up during talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he was recently in Poland, according to a US official familiar with the talks. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said White House officials did not think the proposal would easily solve the logistical challenges of providing aircraft to Ukraine.
US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told lawmakers at a hearing on the Ukraine crisis Tuesday she learned of Poland's plans only while driving to the hearing. “To my knowledge, it wasn’t pre-consulted with us,” Nuland told senators.
German officials also said there were no plans for MiGs to be flying out of Ramstein Air Base.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz noted that Germany has given Ukraine financial and humanitarian aid, as well as some weapons. He added: "But it is also true that we have to consider very carefully what we do concretely, and definitely warplanes are not part of that."
A spokesperson for the foreign ministry added that any decisions needed to be made with the goal of preventing the war in Ukraine from spilling over into NATO.
Ukraine pleads for warplanes
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called again on Wednesday for Western powers to urgently make a decision on the fighter jets.
"When will there be a decision? Look, we're at war!" Zelensky said in a video on his Telegram channel. "We ask you again to decide as soon as possible. Send us planes."
But the handover of Poland's 28 Soviet-made MiG-29s would be unlikely to be a game-changer militarily. MiG-29s are inferior to more sophisticated Russian aircraft and could be easy prey for Russian pilots and missiles.
Ukraine has been pleading for more warplanes as it resists mightier Russian forces. Washington has been looking at a proposal under which Poland would supply Ukraine with MiG-29s and would receive in exchange American F-16s. Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly the Soviet-era MiG-29s.
Any MiG transfer would be fraught with complications. Neither NATO nor the European Union wants to be seen as directly involved in such a transaction, which would sharply raise already extreme tensions with Russia.
To maintain the pretense that NATO and the EU are not direct participants in the Ukraine conflict, US and Polish officials have been considering a variety of options. Under one scenario, Poland would deliver fighter jets to the US base in Germany, where they would be repainted and flown to a non-NATO, non-EU country. Ukrainian pilots would then come to fly them to Ukraine.
No country has been publicly identified as a transit point, but Kosovo, a non-aligned country that is very friendly with the United States, has been mentioned as one of several nations that might be willing to serve as a middle point.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wednesday that any decision about delivering offensive weapons must be made unanimously by NATO members.
“This is why we are able to give all of our fleet of jet fighters to Ramstein. But we are not ready to make any moves on our own because … we are not a party to this war,” he said.
Poland publicly floated the plan to donate its MiGs the day before Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to depart for Warsaw for talks with Polish officials. The offer and subsequent US refusal is likely to add an awkward layer to the talks, which were expected to focus largely on US efforts to help Poland and other Eastern European nations struggling to take in some 2 million refugees since the war started.
A senior US defence official has said Ukrainians are flying relatively few of their existing aircraft, for relatively little time, as it is. The defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US assessment, said it's possible that Ukraine does not need more planes and would benefit most from more of the weapons it uses effectively every day, including anti-aircraft Stinger and anti-tank Javelin missiles.
The official also said that Russia currently has the capacity to reach almost the entire country of Ukraine with its surface-to-air missiles, including from within Russia and from ships in the Black Sea.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and Reuters)