More than 40 Republican U.S. senators on Thursday called for President Biden to aid “the transfer of aircraft and air defense systems” to Ukraine after officials quashed Poland’s offer to send fighter jets with American help.
American officials have criticized Poland’s proposal to transfer MiG-29 jets through the United States as risking escalation without significantly changing the situation in Ukraine, given that Ukraine’s air force is largely intact. Asked about the senator’s letter Thursday evening, White House spokesperson Sean Savett noted comments from the Pentagon and the U.S. military commander in Europe expressing those views.
The GOP lawmakers’ letter increases pressure on the Biden administration to go further and underscores the party’s support for major actions against the Kremlin. The White House announced a ban on Russian oil and natural gas imports this week with bipartisan support, and Congress passed a multibillion-dollar aid package for Ukraine that would provide military and humanitarian support and help NATO allies.
“Supporting Ukraine’s fight for freedom against the tyrannical, lawless Russian invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory is among the most urgent missions the West has faced in a generation,” begins the senators’ letter, which includes the signature of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky).
“We implore you to direct your Department of Defense to facilitate the transfer of aircraft, air defense systems, and other capabilities by and through our NATO partners immediately,” the senators wrote.
Speaking earlier at a news conference, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) dismissed concerns about provoking Russia and said the United States should fulfill a specific request from Ukraine. “It’s time … for [Putin] to fear what we might do," Romney said, referring to the United States and NATO.
Many nations have responded to Russia’s invasion with sanctions, but they have been unwilling to join Ukraine’s fight with a superpower. The United States is wary of military aid that Russia could interpret as more direct involvement in the war.
The Pentagon on Thursday ruled out sending its Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine, with a senior U.S. defense official saying the system is unfamiliar to Ukrainians and would require U.S. troops on the ground.
Poland blindsided American leaders this week by saying it would give MiG-29 jets to the United States for use in the war. In a statement, Poland said it was ready to deploy the planes to an American military facility in Germany “immediately and free of charge.”
The United States quickly rejected the idea: “We do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,” Pentagon’s spokesman John Kirby said. He said such jets “departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.”
Gen. Tod D. Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command, took a similar view in a statement released Thursday.
“We believe the most effective way to support the Ukrainian military in their fight against Russia is to provide increased amounts of anti-tank weapons and air defense systems, which is on-going with the international community,” Wolters said in the statement.
Vice President Harris on Thursday met with Polish President Andrzej Duda and sought to downplay the disagreement over the MiG-29 jets, saying the American relationship with Poland and NATO remains strong.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week that he would work to grant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s “desperate plea” for planes from countries in Eastern Europe. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter Monday, urging quick coordination with Poland to “provide Soviet-era jets to Ukraine.” He said the United States and NATO allies should commit to replacing donated aircraft.
Those comments came before Poland’s proposal that its Russian-made MiG-29 jets be placed “at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America" and go to Ramstein Air Base, an American facility in Germany.
Thursday’s letter from GOP lawmakers sharpens a contrast between their posture on Ukraine and comments last month from former president Donald Trump, who called Putin’s actions in separatist regions of Ukraine “genius” while repeating the Russian president’s claims of sending a “peacekeeper” force.
Speaking more recently to top GOP donors, Trump struck a different tone, rejecting suggestions that he is a “Putin apologist” and mocking Biden for ruling out military engagement with Russia.
John Hudson and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.