Poland becomes first European country to pledge fighter jets for Ukraine

Warsaw’s promise to deliver Soviet MIG-29s represents a significant new step in the transfer of weapons to Kyiv, after allies agreed to send battle tanks. But Ukrainian officials say what they really need is US-made warplanes

cazas ucrania
Two MiG-29 fighter jets, last October in Polish airspace.RADOSLAW JOZWIAK (AFP)

Poland, one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine against the Russian invasion, has pledged to deliver four Soviet-designed MIG-29 fighter jets to Kyiv “in the next few days,” according to Polish president Andrzej Duda. The move, an answer to increasingly loud demands by the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, would make Poland the first country to supply Kyiv with warplanes and could lead the way for contributions from other allies such as Slovakia, which has already suggested that it might join the measure.

The announcement comes as Ukraine is preparing a decisive counteroffensive to push back Russian forces to the east and south. The decision by Poland, a member of NATO, may further escalate the already incendiary rhetoric of Russia, which is accusing the Atlantic Alliance of participating in the war in Ukraine. The transfer of fighter jets has been a highly controversial and divisive issue among the allies since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The shipment of the Soviet-designed fighters would break a new taboo in NATO’s and the EU’s support for Ukraine, although it would still not meet Kiyv’s top request: US F-16 fighters. Warsaw, which previously led the creation of a coalition to send German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine — a transfer that is not going as well or as fast as expected — has now opened the door to increasing the number of Soviet warplanes in the Ukrainian army’s possession. The transfer of MIG-29s may not be very fast, however, warn EU sources, noting that before sending them to Ukraine, it is likely that a screening will be necessary to see if the aircraft contain any Western-made components.

“In the next few days, we will deliver four fully operational aircraft to Ukraine,” Duda said during a news conference in Warsaw with the newly inaugurated president of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, a former chairman of NATO’s Military Committee. Other planes were being reviewed and would be delivered gradually, added Duda. A few days ago, the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, claimed that a coalition of countries had shown their willingness to send MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine.

Polish officials also left the door open to an even more significant step by stating that Warsaw is considering a transfer of the desired US-made F-16 fighter jets, which would give Ukraine a significant advantage over Russia’s weapons potential and its air superiority. But while Ukrainian military pilots don’t need special training to fly MIG-29s, because the Air Force already has some of these planes, flying US warplanes would require significant training and logistical support. On Thursday, following the announcement by the Polish president, a White House spokeswoman said that sending US combat aircraft to Kyiv is not on the table right now. Meanwhile, Ukraine insists that what it needs are the modern fighter jets. “MIGs will not solve our problems, we need F-16s,” said Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuri Ignat.

Poland has 28 MIG-29 jets, according to publicly available information (although not all of them are operational) and its government is considering replacing them with FA-50s from South Korea and F-35s from the United States. By replacing the military equipment sent to Ukraine, Warsaw is taking this opportunity to modernize its army and make it the largest and one of the most powerful in the EU. This, and the fact that Poland has important anti-aircraft defense systems, in addition to being under the NATO umbrella, mean that its national security will not suffer from the transfers, as government spokesman Piotr Muller has insisted. “Our security will benefit from this [the delivery of the MIG-29s], because we will also keep the Russian front far from our borders at all times,” said Muller, according to the PAP news agency. Poland and Ukraine have a shared border spanning more than 300 miles.

It is not the first time that Warsaw has pledged to deliver fighter jets to Kyiv. It already did so during the early stages of the invasion, but on condition that Washington would replace them with more modern US-made ones, in a move that did not go well. On this occasion, however, it appears that the conditions are more favorable. Slovakia, which also has a dozen MIG-29s, could be next, although internal debate between the government and the opposition may weigh on the decision. Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia also have some of these Soviet warplanes. Warsaw is trying to replicate the strategy it used with the German-made Leopard 2 tanks: to create a grand coalition for shipments.

Polish warplanes may play an important role in the Ukrainian counteroffensive planned for the spring. They could also provide essential support to ground troops and provide the necessary air protection required by the Leopard 2 tanks that will be delivered to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

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