WARSAW — Poland will deliver an initial batch of four Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, Polish President Andrzej Duda said Thursday, ramping up pressure on other NATO allies to make similar commitments.
“We are literally sending these MiGs to Ukraine at this moment,” he said. Poland did not say how the planes would be delivered — whether flown by Polish or Ukrainian pilots, or disassembled and taken by truck or rail. Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said in Kyiv that the method of delivery was “highly secret information.”
Agreement to transfer the fighter jets marks a new level of Western aid to Ukraine, again crossing what Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has called the “Rubicons” of allied decision-making. In sometimes halting decisions, the West supplied short-range antiaircraft and antitank equipment to repel Russia’s initial invasion, before progressing to include heavy artillery, multiple-launch precision rockets and main battle tanks over the past year as battlefield conditions changed.
But the fighter jets differ in that the United States, Ukraine’s largest arms donor by far, is not leading the decision-making or supply of a new system requested by Kyiv. Instead, Biden administration officials on Thursday restated their refusal to send Ukraine what it has long asked for — F-16 fighter jets — on grounds that they are not needed for the current fight and could not get there, with trained Ukrainian pilots, in time for an anticipated counteroffensive this spring.
With both Russian and Ukrainian forces largely sticking to the ground to avoid each other’s formidable air defenses, many officials have said that the conflict will not be won in the skies.
“They [already] have aircraft,” a senior U.S. defense official noted dryly in a recent interview, when asked if air cover was a necessary component of the “combined arms” maneuvers that the United States and others are currently training Ukrainian soldiers to use in dislodging Russian occupying forces. “Let’s focus on what we need to do to be successful in this next fight. Otherwise, it won’t matter.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity about closed-door policy discussions.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday that Poland’s decision was a “sovereign” one, and “I wouldn’t think it’s our place to characterize [it] … one way or another. It doesn’t affect and does not change our own sovereign decision-making about the provision of F-16s.”
Even Kyiv suggested that the Polish donation was of more symbolic than battlefield value. “It cannot be said that the MiG-29 aircraft will lead to any changes at the front,” but rather are “simply strengthening our capabilities in Soviet technology,” Ihnat said. “These are Soviet planes, like we have, only they’ve gone through certain modifications.”
But, he said, it was a potential “psychological tipping point” that could encourage Ukraine’s other supporters to follow up with additional aircraft.
Lt. Gen. Mykola Oleschuk, commander of the Ukrainian air force, urged NATO on Thursday to create a new program with the slogan “Victory on earth is made in the skies.”
“I am appealing to you to step up efforts to provide the air force of Ukraine with modern multipurpose fighters … which are capable of effectively protecting our country from Russian air terrorist strikes, as well as providing powerful air support to ground troops, for the liberation and de-occupation of Ukrainian territory,” Oleschuk said at an online NATO air chiefs symposium.
He compared the need for “coordinated actions of partners” on aircraft to January’s agreement by at least half a dozen European countries to join a German-led consortium to send main battle tanks to Ukraine — a decision made, following months of fruitless Ukrainian appeals, only after Poland decided to send its Leopard 2 tanks and the United States agreed to eventually provide M1 Abrams tanks.
Poland and Slovakia, which has also said it is ready to send Soviet-era jets to Ukraine, have called on other countries to follow their lead as part of an international coalition.
An administration official said that unlike the tank decision, which followed lengthy negotiations among the United States, Germany and others — with carefully choreographed announcements — the timing of Duda’s statement came as a surprise. There had been some discussions with the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, and Poland’s defense minister had told a virtual meeting of his counterparts among Ukraine donors Wednesday of his government’s decision but gave no indication when it would be announced.
Last month, Britain said that it would begin training Ukrainian pilots on fighter jets used by NATO, and the United States invited two pilots to visit an F-16 training site. Both British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron have said they have not ruled out contributing fighter jets to Ukraine, but suggested that nothing would be immediate.
Warsaw is in the process of upgrading its air force with South Korean-made FA-50 fighters and American-made F-35s. It has about a dozen of the MiG-29s available that are “mostly” functional, Duda said, adding that the remainder will be “serviced and prepared” before also being donated. Noting that Ukraine already has its own MiG-29s, he said Ukrainian pilots will be able to fly them without additional training.
Kirby said Poland is “really punching above its weight when it comes to supporting Ukraine.” Its advocacy of sending fighter jets to Kyiv began just weeks after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24 last year, when it began to discuss transferring some of the Soviet-era MiGs it had purchased decades earlier from East Germany. The Biden administration agreed at the time, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying that it would give a “green light” to the transfer and was in “active discussions” with Poland to backfill Warsaw’s arsenal with F-16s.
But after initial talks faded, Poland abruptly announced that it planned to turn 28 of its MiGs over to the United States, and that the Americans could transfer them to Ukraine via its Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The White House balked, worried at that early stage in the war that Russia would see the arrival of jet fighters from a NATO air base — particularly an American base — as an instant escalation.
Although Ukraine continued asking for fighter jets, the issue had receded by last fall amid more urgent demands for air defense and tanks. But in recent months, top Ukrainian officials have continued to remind Western audiences of their desire for modern combat aircraft.
In an appearance before the British Parliament last month, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky gave the speaker of the House of Commons what he said was “the helmet of a real Ukrainian pilot. The writing on the helmet reads: ‘We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.’”
Morris reported from Berlin, Stern reported from Kyiv.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.