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U.S. ‘looking actively’ at helping supply Ukraine with fighter jets, Blinken says

Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a news conference March 6 with Moldovan President Maia Sandu at the Presidential Palace in Chisinau. (Pool/Reuters)
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TALLINN, Estonia — The United States is exploring how it might help Ukraine obtain fighter jets from NATO nations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday, suggesting a step-up in Western military aid as Kyiv attempts to hold off a deepening Russian assault.

“We are looking actively now at the question of airplanes that Poland may provide to Ukraine and looking at how we might be able to backfill should Poland choose to supply those planes,” he told reporters during a visit to Chisinau, Moldova.

“I can’t speak to the timeline but I can just tell you that we’re looking at it very, very actively,” he said.

Blinken’s remarks are sure to be welcomed in Kyiv, where Ukrainian leaders have been appealing to Europe and the United States to supply them with additional military equipment as civilian deaths mount and Russian forces push closer to major cities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday made an urgent appeal to U.S. lawmakers to help his country get additional air power.

E.U. membership and fighter jets for Ukraine remain elusive as Zelensky says ‘prove you are with us’

Kyiv has also called for NATO establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a move that alliance officials have ruled out because they say it would probably plunge NATO into a war with Russia.

Blinken, who is visiting European countries as he seeks to signal Western unity in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, said this week that the Biden administration would not support a no-fly zone. But until Sunday he had not spoken of a potential American effort to help Ukraine get European combat planes.

The fate of a potential transfer, most likely by Eastern European countries whose jets would be more compatible with Ukraine’s military, had been unclear in the days after it was first raised by European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week.

While Eastern European nations have pushed for strengthened defense against Russia, they also have concerns that supplying Ukraine with combat aircraft could prompt the Kremlin to retaliate against them. Both Polish and NATO leaders subsequently suggested the transfer would not occur.

Speaking to CNN from Moldova, Blinken said it would be up to the Polish government whether to send any of its MiGs or other Russian-made aircraft to Ukraine. “If they choose to do it, we want to make sure that we can help them and, again, backfill what they’re giving so that they don’t have any loss in their own ability to provide security,” he said.

Moscow on Sunday warned that any country that permitted Ukrainian jets to use their territory as a launchpad would be regarded as a party to the conflict.

Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that “the use of the network of airfields of those countries for the stationing of Ukrainian combat aviation for the further use against the Russian armed forces could be viewed as the involvement of those countries” in the conflict.

Blinken said the United States would consider whether it could supply jets to other NATO nations that donate planes to Ukraine on a case-by-case basis.

“For everything we’re doing for Ukraine, the president also has a responsibility to not get us into a direct conflict, a direct war, with Russia, a nuclear power, and risk a war that expands even beyond Ukraine to Europe,” he said of President Biden. “What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one.”

During his stop in Moldova, Blinken thanked leaders in Chisinau for welcoming more than 250,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine, a major challenge for a country with a population below 3 million. The visit differed from others on Blinken’s tour in that Moldova, like Ukraine, is not a NATO member, and thus does not have that protection.

Like Ukraine, Moldova, whose neutrality is stipulated in its constitution, is seeking membership in the European Union.

An estimated 1,500 Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova.

Speaking alongside Blinken, Moldovan President Maia Sandu described the Russian troop presence in Transnistria as a “vulnerability.” She said the government had not detected anything that suggested the Russian troops in the region would be taking part in the Ukraine conflict.