Both Poland and Slovakia took the initial step to send fighter jets to Ukraine in a move spurring western allies closer to finally supplying modern warplanes to Kyiv.
Last week, Poland announced it would eventually send a dozen MiG-29 jets, which was quickly followed by Slovakia’s decision to send 13 of its own MiGs.
The two announcements were remarkable after more than a year of Ukraine’s allies refusing to send fighter aircraft for its war against Russia and after the U.S. rebuffed Poland’s request to deliver MiG-29s in March 2022.
Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and a fellow with the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. and NATO allies are unlikely to approve modern fighter jets anytime soon, but the new developments could accelerate the trend in that direction.
“What the Poles and Slovaks are doing is trying to move that lever,” Fried said. “It also shows Congress that the European countries are not expecting the U.S. to do all the heavy lifting but are giving a lot of their own.”
While not decisive, the Polish and Slovakian MiG-29s are expected to give Ukraine some breathing room since Kyiv inherited just a few dozen fighter aircraft from the Soviet era, compared to the hundreds Russia operates.
The MiGs are also a sign that western support for Ukraine is not breaking, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to that end.
Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger emphasized that his decision to send MiGs kept a promise made to Ukraine while also giving Kyiv the tools to defend Europe from Russia.
Eastern European nations, who are the closest to the deadly fighting in Ukraine, have played a leading role in the race to arm Kyiv in its fight against a Russian invasion, especially as the war drags on and threatens to expand. That risk was spotlighted last year by a haphazard Ukrainian missile that killed two civilians in Poland late last year, which was initially blamed on Russia.
Poland pushed western allies toward approving modern battle tanks earlier this year, formally asking Germany for permission to send over its own stock of Leopard 2s, keeping on the pressure until Berlin reversed course from its initial refusal.
Now, the eastern European nations may be slowly opening the door to supply modern jets, such as the American-made F-16 or the Eurofighter Typhoon.
When the Biden administration declined to allow Poland to transfer MiG-29s to a U.S. base in Germany last year, it raised concerns about an escalation. But more than a year of the war has softened the Ukrainian defense coalition on what the group sees as potentially provocative.
The U.S. and its NATO allies have not sent high mobility rocket launchers, modern tanks and other advanced weapons, many of which were initially seen as off-limits.
It’s unclear if escalation remains a major factor preventing the transfer of modern jets. The U.S. is concerned about Ukraine striking into Russian territory, but Moscow has air defense systems that would deter any aircraft.
In recent months, U.S. officials have said Kyiv simply does not need the F-16s in the current phase of the war and that older aircraft like the MiGs will be easier to integrate into its military operations.
Speaking to reporters last week, both White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby welcomed the news of Poland’s decision to send MiGs but said it does not change the calculus of the U.S. position.
The stance has run counter to Ukraine’s position. Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky told CNN earlier this month his country “really needs” U.S. planes to defend against constant Russian strikes on critical infrastructure.
Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, said advanced fighter jets would not defend Ukrainian skies as effectively as missile defense systems like Patriots, since Russia often launches devastating strikes from inside its own territory. And on the battlefield, the main fighting is on the ground.
But after more than a year of tensions over modern aircraft, finally providing them would symbolize unity and strength, he added.
“They want these things, not only because of their military utility,” Friedberg said, “but because they are tokens of Western support.”
Another concern is training. While F-16s are not the most advanced American aircraft, they are far superior and more complex than Ukraine’s current fleet of MiG-29s and Su-27s, including for maneuverability and visibility at high speeds.
Ukrainian pilots are in the U.S. undergoing an assessment to see how long training on F-16 fighter jets would last, NBC News reported earlier this month.
And the United Kingdom is also training some Ukrainian pilots to fly “sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future.”
Michal Baranowski, managing director of the German Marshall Fund East, said Ukraine should be given the “benefit of the doubt on the ability to quickly plug in and learn F-16s.”
“Ukrainians have shown incredible brilliance, both in terms of logistics and tactics and the ability to learn fast,” Baranowski said.
He argued there was a “political hesitancy” to provide Ukraine everything it needs, which if overcome could lead to much faster training and eventual deployment of the advanced aircraft.
“It is a logic of, ‘Let’s keep Ukraine in the fight, but let’s not go all out,’” Baranowski said. “Which is political logic rather than military logic.”
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