Why Getting Jets Into Ukrainian Hands Is Proving So Messy

Kamala Harris heads to Poland, where she'll have to smooth things over
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 9, 2022 12:56 PM CST
Why Getting Jets Into Ukrainian Hands Is Proving So Messy
Two Polish air force Russian-made MiG-29's fly above and below two Polish air force US-made F-16 fighter jets during an air show in Radom, Poland, on Aug. 27, 2011.   (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz, File)

Kamala Harris is in Warsaw Wednesday to thank Poland for receiving masses of Ukrainian refugees, reports the AP—and to mop up a late-developing diplomatic headache. The Polish government on Tuesday evening offered to hand over Soviet-era MiG-29 jets to the US, which would then give them to Ukraine. The Pentagon replied by calling the plan "not ... tenable," and it turns out Poland didn't float the idea with the Biden administration before going public with it. The exchange was quickly branded as "a rare sign of disunity among NATO allies." Context and analysis:

  • The Boston Globe explains that Vladimir Putin has made clear that if planes used by Ukrainians use a neighboring country's base, it will view that country as being involved in the conflict. Should that country be a NATO member and should Russia retaliate with force, Article V of the NATO treaty would kick in. "It stipulates that an attack on one allied country is an attack on all of them."

  • At the Guardian, Patrick Wintour writes the issue comes down to a subtle but crucial shift. The original idea the US put forth would have seen Poland supply Ukrainian pilots with its MiGs; the US would supply fighter jets to Poland to occupy the resulting gaps. With its Tuesday suggestion, Poland tweaked things so that it would have the appearance of a "US, NATO, or EU scheme but not a Polish one ... [as] Poland felt the plan unduly exposed its citizens to Putin's ire."
  • As for why these planes, the AP provides some background: Soviet-made MiG-29 and Su jet fighters like those used by former Soviet-bloc NATO members Poland, Bulgaria, and Slovakia are what the Ukrainian air force uses; its pilots aren't trained to fly US-made fighter jets. Polish pilots can fly those and sees the possibility of the US replacing whatever it directs toward Ukraine.
  • But that still leaves open the question of where the MiG-29s would be based ("it isn't clear if Ukraine would be able to safely house and service them in the long run, given the warfare on its territory," per the AP) and how to get them there. Polish pilots are NATO pilots, so flying them in would be a risky proposition. Poland's Tuesday night offer would have seen the jets flown to the US air base in Ramstein, Germany.

  • Wintour's take: "Russia retains air superiority. Ukrainian pilots who were being trained in Poland to fly the planes are now grounded with no machines with which to defend their country. An opportunity has been squandered."
  • At the Telegraph, Nick Allen writes that Harris won't just be tasked with smoothing things over, but also with working to find another method of getting planes into Ukrainian hands. He points out that Ukraine's defense attache in Washington, Maj. Gen. Borys Kremenetskyi, reiterated that his No. 1 priority is strengthening his nation's air defense: "It can be ground-based air-defense systems. It can be fighter jets. Whatever possible."
  • CNN reports that prior to Harris' morning departure, "intensive conversations" took place within the administration about how to coordinate with Poland in a way that would end up with Ukraine getting jets.
(More Russia-Ukraine war stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.