US can transfer Poland’s fighter jets to Ukraine, Polish foreign minister says

Poland’s foreign affairs minister said Tuesday the country wants to “immediately” send all of its MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, where the United States could decide whether and how to transfer them to Ukrainian troops.

The aircraft come free of charge, Zbigniew Rau wrote in a statement posted to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Poland owns nearly 30 combat-ready MiG-29s, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities,” Rau said. “Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.”

He asked other NATO allies that own MiG-29s to do the same. Ukrainian air force pilots are already trained to fly the Soviet-era jets, which are akin to American F-16 Fighting Falcons or F/A-18 Hornets.

Pentagon officials say they have seen the published reports and “have nothing to offer at this time” in response.

Officials in Ukraine, which is not currently a member of NATO or the European Union, have pleaded for more military assistance from the U.S. and other European countries as it nears two weeks of battling the Russian invasion. But critics worry Russia will retaliate against countries that contribute aircraft and other major combat systems to the fight.

The West has provided a range of anti-tank munitions, combat gear, targeting intelligence and other resources, but so far shied away from committing troops or military vehicles.

A State Department spokesperson told Air Force Times on Tuesday the U.S. is working with the Poles and consulting other NATO allies on the issue.

“This is Poland’s sovereign decision to make,” they added. “We have in no way opposed Poland transferring planes to Ukraine.”

Still, they noted, several “challenging practical questions” still remain — like how NATO countries would actually hand off their MiG-29s to the Ukrainians.

“We very much support them providing MiGs, SUs, planes that Ukrainian can fly, to the Ukrainians,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday. “But we also want to see if we can be helpful … in making sure that whatever they provide to the Ukrainians, something goes to them to make up for any gap in the security for Poland that might result. We’re actively talking about that right now.”

The news came as a surprise to U.S. officials even though those negotiations have been ongoing for several days.

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said she learned of it as she was driving to Capitol Hill.

“I was in a meeting where I ought to have heard about that just before I came [to the Hill], so I think that actually was a surprise move by the Poles,” she said, adding: “I look forward … to getting back to my desk and seeing how we will respond to this proposal of theirs to give the plans to us.”

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a member of the foreign relations panel, on Tuesday urged the Biden administration to come up with a plan to backfill Polish planes with U.S. F-16s or a similar jet “to ensure this transfer can happen and encourage our other allies to follow Poland’s brave example.”

He made a similar argument at a rally supporting Ukraine in Washington D.C. on Sunday, before Poland agreed to transfer the jets to the U.S.

In an exchange with Nuland, Portman called Poland’s announcement “a good sign” and said he hoped Poland would also transfer its Su-25s, and that Slovakia and Bulgaria would make similar moves.

There was bipartisan support for the deal, with Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, who also sits on Senate Foreign Relations urging it move quickly. “I would ask that, if this is not going to be handled quickly, to please advise this committee … Time is of the essence and we would like to see those planes there yesterday,” he told Nuland.

As of March 4, the U.S. had delivered $240 million in weapons to Ukraine as part of a $350 million defense aid package President Joe Biden approved last month, according to the State Department. That offering includes anti-tank Javelin missiles, small arms, body armor and other munitions.

Asked about further U.S. missile transfers to Ukraine, Nuland declined to discuss the matter openly, but told lawmakers, “we are working very hard and fast on that now.”

As of Feb. 26, the United States had provided more than $1 billion in security assistance to Ukraine in the past year, Blinken said. The White House is seeking at least $10 billion more from Congress to fund humanitarian support and military operations related to the Russian war in Ukraine.

Washington’s next step will be to assess the further defense needs of Poland, which the U.S. is supplying Patriot missile defense batteries and benefits from “full air security from the NATO alliance,” Nuland said.

Military Times Pentagon bureau chief Meghann Myers contributed to this report.

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.

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