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U.S., allies weigh providing Ukraine fighter jets to counter Russia

Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze caused by Russian shelling near a monument to Ukraine's air force in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, on July 14. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Senior U.S. officials acknowledged Wednesday that the United States and its allies are considering whether to provide Ukraine with new fighter jets and the training needed to operate them, a move that would dramatically expand Western involvement in the war with Russia.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, said that although he would not speculate what type of aircraft might be transferred, discussions are ongoing about how to reinforce Ukraine’s fleet, including with new planes. The Ukrainian air force has been outgunned by Russia since the invasion began Feb. 24, sparingly flying an assortment of MiG jets and other Cold War-era planes.

Brown said there are several possibilities, including American-made fighters or some made in Europe. Options include the Gripen fighter made in Sweden, the Rafale made in France, and the Eurofighter Typhoon, which is built by a consortium of companies in several countries.

“It’ll be something non-Russian, I can probably tell you that,” Brown said during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “But I can’t tell you exactly what it’s going to be.”

Russia seeks to annex Ukraine’s east, south later this year, U.S. says

The discussion marks a departure from earlier in the war, when the Biden administration ruled out facilitating a deal what would have sent some of Poland’s MiG fighters to Ukraine in exchange for U.S.-manufactured F-16s. Pentagon officials said in March that such a proposal was not “tenable” and raised the possibility that participating in the swap could exacerbate tensions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that European allies had a “green light” to send planes to Ukraine, but that the United States wanted to avoid direct conflict with Russia.

The prospect of training Ukrainian pilots to operate new aircraft already has traction in Congress; last week the House voted to dedicate $100 million to the endeavor as part of its version of the annual defense authorization bill. Thus far, however, Pentagon leaders have declined to endorse such a plan.

“There’s been no decisions on any of that,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday during a news conference alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “But we do examine a wide variety of options, to include pilot training.”

Austin and Milley spoke with reporters following the latest meeting of international military leaders working to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, both in the near term and for what many foresee will be a years-long standoff with Russia. Austin indicated that, for now, the Biden administration’s priority remains the artillery war Ukraine’s troops are waging in the country’s east.

“Right now, we’re focused on helping them to be successful in the fight that they’re in, and employing the weapons systems they’re going to need to be successful in that fight,” he said. “In terms of predicting where we’re going to be with pilot training in months or years, I won’t venture to do that.”

Adding any modern fighter jets to Ukraine’s military would mark a massive upgrade. Ukrainian officials have, for months, sought ways to bolster the country’s air force, which has flown sparingly during the war and must maneuver around Russian surface-to-air missiles.

Brown, the top U.S. Air Force general, said the discussion is partly about “understanding where Ukraine wants to go and how we meet them where they are.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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