Updated Mar 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Ukraine fighter-jet deal appears doomed

A Polish MiG fighter jet is seen in a hangar in Warsaw.
A Polish MiG-29 jet is seen in 2016 at a hangar in Warsaw. Photo: Darek Majewski/Gallo Images Poland/Getty Images

Efforts to push the Biden administration into supporting the transfer of Russian-made fighter jets to Ukraine appear doomed for both technical and geopolitical reasons.

Why it matters: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for the jets on Saturday during a Zoom call with more than 300 members of Congress, saying they were badly needed if NATO wouldn't establish a "no-fly" zone.

  • Those jets would likely be Soviet-era MiG-29s possessed by Poland, which Ukrainian pilots are capable of operating.
  • The U.S. would, in turn, backfill Poland's fleet with American-made F-16s.

Reality check: White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Monday the U.S. would be in "no way opposed" to Poland's "sovereign decision" to transfer its planes but stressed there are a number of logistical hurdles.

  • Those include how the planes would actually enter Ukraine's heavily contested airspace, as well as how to accelerate the years-long U.S. procurement process for "serious weapon systems" like the F-16.
  • The Russians have also been bombing Ukraine's airports, raising the specter of the planes having to be based in Poland or other NATO territory — increasing the risk of a Russian attack on soil that would have to be defended by the alliance.

Between the lines: Zelensky's appeal produced an immediate and bipartisan groundswell of support.

  • Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) sent a letter on Monday calling on the Biden administration to "do everything we can to compensate countries that heed Ukraine’s desperate call for fighter jets to defend their homeland."
  • His Republican counterpart, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), tweeted: "There is absolutely no reason we can’t supply airplanes to Zelensky and the Ukrainians. Our allies are willing and able to provide them, the admin needs to get out of the way."

Between the lines: Top Russian military expert Michael Kofman says it's a mistake to "waste time" on the MiG debate, arguing there are other supplies and weapons systems that would be more helpful to Ukraine.

  • "Frankly, a lot of the aircraft Ukraine has put up has gotten shot down," Kofman said.
  • "And pushing MiG-29s — are they really going to fly from air bases that are being readily barraged on a daily and nightly basis?"

Zoom out: There's also the matter of whether Poland itself is willing to risk provoking Russia, though the calculus in Warsaw could change if it received rock-solid security guarantees from the U.S.

  • Calling a Wall Street Journal report about the potential MiG-F16 deal "FAKE NEWS" on Sunday, the office of the Polish prime minister tweeted: "Poland won't send its fighter jets to Ukraine as well as allow to use its airports. We significantly help in many other areas."
  • A government spokesman clarified to a public broadcaster on Monday: "It is a very delicate matter. The Polish authorities have not made any decisions on the transfer of the planes to Ukraine."

The big picture: The risk of being deemed a "co-combatant" by Russia continues to permeate every U.S. and NATO decision about weapons transfers and intelligence sharing.

  • Russia's defense ministry warned Sunday that if foreign-supplied jets are used to attack the Russian military, it could be considered "the involvement of these states in an armed conflict."
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