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Why Washington shut down Poland’s offer to give Ukraine fighter jets

The United States turned down an offer from Poland on March 8 to transfer its MiG-29 fighter jets to a U.S. base in Germany to be used by Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)
8 min

Ukrainian cities are under siege, and Ukraine is pleading with the West to send it fighter jets.

But as a recent tiff between the U.S. and Poland over providing jets to Ukraine underscores, there are limits to what the United States and NATO are willing to do to help, as world leaders scramble to ensure that the war does not spill beyond Ukraine’s borders or escalate into a direct confrontation between powers armed with nuclear weapons.

Here’s what happened between the United States and Poland, and what it says about the war in Ukraine.

Why does Ukraine want fighter jets?

Ukraine has pilots ready to fly and fight Russians, but it can’t compete with Russia’s air power. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told U.S. lawmakers that fighter jets are his country’s top priority, even over antiaircraft missiles that Ukraine has been getting from its allies.

“If you can’t do [a no-fly zone], at least get me planes,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told members of Congress in a call this weekend, Republican senators said.

No one has given Ukraine fighter jets since Russia’s invasion, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

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What did Poland offer?

In an unusual move, Poland on Tuesday offered to send a number of Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine via an American air base in Germany, blindsiding U.S. officials, who said they had not been consulted, The Washington Post reported. In exchange, Poland requested that the United States send it replacement planes, presumably newer, U.S.-manufactured F-16s, which would constitute a major upgrade.

The United States and Poland had been in preliminary talks about some kind of plane swap to help Ukraine get more fighter jets. But Poland proposed Tuesday that the United States step in to move the planes to Ukraine, which was not part of Washington’s plan.

Poland is “ready to deploy — immediately and free of charge — all their MiG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America,” which would in turn “provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities,” read a statement posted to the website of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The offer would be a win-win for Poland: It would help Ukraine in its fight with Russia, which Poland also sees as a threat, and bolster the Polish air force.

And it wouldn’t have to take direct responsibility for getting the planes to Ukraine.

Poland is worried both about the war next door in Ukraine and about Putin finding a pretext to invade other parts of Eastern Europe. The United States is also worried about the war spreading to Ukraine’s neighbors, some of whom are also NATO members. The United States announced Tuesday that it would send to Poland two Patriot missile batteries, a defensive measure that can detect and fire rockets at incoming missiles. Poland has been requesting new F-16s from Washington for a while. But production for the warplanes is backlogged and the United States has promised Taiwan, under increasing threat from China and spooked by Russia’s attempt to annex Ukraine, that it would receive the next batch. Poland presumably asked for “used” planes to bypass this issue.

Why MiG-29 jets?

Because that’s what Ukrainians are trained to fly.

The MiG-29 was the Soviet Union’s prized fighter jet. The warplane was designed in the late 1970s in part to counter the fast and versatile U.S.-manufactured F-16s. When U.S. intelligence first learned the Soviets were making fighter jets, they were worried to see the Soviet Union catching up with U.S. aircraft technologies, Smithsonian magazine reported.

Countries across the then-former Soviet Union flew the warplanes, as have others such as Iraq, Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

Over time, Washington also learned more about the jets and developed its own technologies to better counter them. The planes have by now largely fallen out of use, but they remain predominant in former Soviet states.

Why the U.S. basically rejected this plan

It would shift the responsibility for delivering the fighter jets — and the risk of confrontation with Russia — on to Washington in a very public way.

“We do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,” John Kirby, press secretary for the Pentagon, said in a statement.

Poland’s offer would require the United States and NATO to play a lead role in getting the planes to Ukraine. Even in the context of broad Western effort to arm Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin could easily construe jets taking off from a NATO base in Germany to eventually fight Russians as NATO fighting Russians. That, Kirby said, “raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.”

Left unsaid is that if Washington does find a way to get fighter jets into Ukraine, it wants to do it as quietly as possible. “They are trying to find a low-visibility way to send planes to Ukraine,” Cancian said, “as opposed to holding a news conference to announce they’re trying to do it.”

The United States and Europe were totally caught off guard by Poland’s offer, given Poland had just rejected a U.S. offer to send planes from Poland. “Sideswiped” is how one European official described the reaction,, The Post reported.

On a visit to Poland days after this, Vice President Harris tried to smooth over the diplomatic relationship between the two countries: “I want to be very clear,” Harris told reporters. “The United States and Poland are united in what we have done, and are prepared to do, to help Ukraine and the people of Ukraine, full stop.”

What does NATO fear?

Western officials and their allies are very worried about how this war could quickly escalate — into NATO countries, into Western Europe and even into a nuclear war.

Putin is feeding those fears. He’s talked about his country’s nuclear weapons and warned that he would view any nation that declared a no-fly zone — a threat to shoot down Russian planes over Ukraine — “as participants of the military conflict.”

Plus, the line between proxy war between the United States and Russia and real war is getting fuzzier. The United States has been supplying Ukraine weapons for years — billions of dollars worth, my colleagues report — and they’ve ramped that up as the Russian invasion loomed. They’ve sent them missiles, antitank weapons, ammunition and systems that let Ukrainians shoot down Russian aircraft.

But some U.S. officials have fretted that the United States’ definition of direct combat with Russia is not Putin’s, the New York Times reports. “Some U.S. national security officials say they have a foreboding that [direct] conflict is increasingly likely,” the Times writes.

Could the U.S. still send planes to Ukraine?

Possibly. In fact, Cancian thinks it’s likely that Washington could find a way to transfer these Soviet-era planes to Ukraine when no one’s looking. “They’ll find a secret airfield somewhere,” he said

Republican members of Congress are putting pressure on the Biden administration to get these jets. Republican senators held a news conference Thursday saying they think Putin already knows American weapons are killing Russians, and demanding that the Biden administration get Ukraine jets. “I have talked to numerous colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and they too agree with the need to get these jets to Ukrainians,” asserted Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Thursday.

For now, though, the United States and NATO publicly launching planes into Ukraine could be a step too far for officials.

The United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday, is trying to “end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one.”

Though they haven’t ruled out getting the jets to Ukraine, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the military is studying options that would avoid raising Russia’s ire to a tipping point: “How do you get planes into Ukraine in a way that is not escalatory, and what are the logistics and operational details of that?” she asked. “Carting them down the street is not as easy as you may think it is.”

Cancian says it’s a matter of time before planes make it to Ukraine, with the help of the United States.