By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA and MATTHEW LEE – Associated Press
WARSAW, Poland (AP) – In a private video call with American lawmakers over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a “desperate” plea for the United States to help Kyiv procure more fighter jets to combat the Russian invasion and maintain control to keep track of its airspace.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington has given the idea a “green light” and is “very, very actively considering” a proposal that Poland, Ukraine’s neighbor, would supply Kyiv with Soviet-era fighters in exchange for American F-16s to make up for their loss.
However, the proposal is fraught with uncertainty and Poland was unenthusiastic about it publicly, especially as Russia has warned that supporting Ukraine’s air force in Moscow would be seen as participating in the conflict and opening up suppliers to possible retaliatory action. The official comment from NATO and EU member Poland merely confirmed ongoing talks on the issue.
WHY DOES UKRAINE NEED FIGHTER PLANES?
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The Ukrainian Air Force uses Soviet Mig-29 and Su jet fighters to defend its skies and territory from the Russian military invasion that began on February 24 and has requested more fighter jets to continue the mission in the long term.
The Air Force was vastly outnumbered by the much more powerful Russian Air Force, but Ukrainian pilots continued to fly combat missions and claimed kills in combat, despite repeated claims by the Russian military that it had suppressed Ukraine’s air forces and air defenses.
Ukrainian military pilots are not trained to fly US jet fighters and would be much better equipped to handle MiG-29 or Su aircraft currently used by former NATO members Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia in the Soviet bloc.
Ukrainian pilots could fly MiGs immediately, but Poland is not keen on losing significant parts of its air force without replacement. US-made F-16s become the mainstay of the Polish Air Force as it modernizes its military.
HOW IS POLAND REACTING?
Blinken said there was a “green light” for Poland to send planes to Ukraine.
“We are now actively considering the issue of planes that Poland can provide to Ukraine and how we might be able to replenish in case Poland decides to supply those planes. I can’t name a schedule, but I can just tell you, we’re looking at it very, very actively,” said Blinken on Sunday in Moldova.
However, the reaction from Poland was muted.
“As far as the deployment of aircraft is concerned, I can only repeat that no decisions have been made in this regard,” said government spokesman Piotr Müller.
Mueller has denied allegations that Poland could make its airfields available to Ukrainian fighter jets. Russia claims that Romania and several other countries, which it did not name, are stationing Ukraine’s warplanes.
Meanwhile, Poland has supported Ukraine both politically, by supporting its territorial integrity and sovereignty, and on a humanitarian level, by opening its border to refugees from the non-EU country.
WHY IS POLAND INDIVIDUAL?
Despite its supportive stance towards Ukraine in its struggle, Warsaw faces a crucial and challenging decision regarding the supply of its aircraft to Ukraine.
Russia has warned Ukraine’s neighbors against stationing its warplanes on their territory, saying Moscow may consider it their “interference in the military conflict”. That could mean an opening of hostilities.
Russia’s words could be read as a broader warning against supporting Ukraine’s air forces.
Poland also borders Russia through the Kaliningrad exclave and shares a long border with Russia’s close ally Belarus. Relations between Warsaw and Moscow have been at a low point since a right-wing government took office in Poland in 2015.
One of the main issues is where these MiGs would be based if they were available as they would not be able to stand on NATO soil. It is not clear whether Ukraine would be able to house and care for them safely in the long term given the war on its territory.
Another issue to be resolved would be how to deliver the planes to Ukraine. Polish pilots, who are also NATO pilots, could not fly them to Ukraine without risking NATO involvement in the conflict, and sending Ukrainian pilots to Poland to fly them back could pose similar problems.
There is also an F-16 production backlog, meaning countries that might give their MiGs and Su fighters to Ukraine would have to wait some time for the refill.
US Senator Marco Rubio summed it up like this: “There are complications that come with it. It’s not as simple as surrender. You have to fly them in. You need to station them somewhere on the ground.
“And … the Russians fired quite – somewhere between eight and twelve rockets at an airport in western Ukraine. And denying them places to move that airframe is just part of a strategy,” said Rubio, a Florida Republican.
Matthew Lee reported from Vilnius, Lithuania. Tom Strong in Washington contributed to this report.
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