Nato’s common front against Russia has been fractured after the Pentagon summarily dismissed Poland’s “surprise” plan to hand over combat jets to the US so that they could be delivered to Ukraine.
Last night Warsaw announced that it was putting the 28 Soviet-made Mig-29 fighters “at the disposal” of the US and was ready to deploy them to an American air force base in Germany, prompting jubilation from some Ukrainian commentators.
Kyiv had repeatedly appealed for additional jets to help its battle with Russia for control of the skies and some European leaders interpreted the Polish proposal as a prelude to sending the aircraft to the Ukrainians. However, Poland’s announcement appears to have blindsided Washington and it was swiftly rejected by the US as not “tenable”.
Hours after the US turned down the Polish proposal, the US military said it was “repositioning” two Patriot missile defence batteries to Poland “to confront any potential threats” to allies.
Kamala Harris, the vice-president, will travel to Poland today to discuss how to provide “military assistance” for Ukraine. The White House said that the trip was planned before Warsaw’s announcement on the jets and that Harris would meet President Duda and Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, tomorrow.
US officials said the Polish proposal to send Ukraine fighter jets by way of the American air base at Ramstein raised “serious concerns for the entire Nato alliance” because it could be interpreted by the Russians as an act of aggression, amid concerns it could provoke retaliation from Moscow.
Victoria Nuland, a senior State Department official, said that the US had not been “pre-consulted” about the decision. The Pentagon said it was ultimately Poland’s responsibility to decide whether to dispatch the jets to Ukraine.
“It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it,” a Pentagon spokesman said. “We will continue to consult with Poland and our other Nato allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one.”
Any supply of fighter jets to Ukraine must be done through Nato, top Polish officials said today. “The USA does not want these planes to come to Ukraine from American bases,” Jakub Kumoch, the Polish president’s foreign affairs adviser, told the public broadcaster TVP Info. “Poland is ready to act, but only within the framework of the alliance, within the framework of Nato.”
Pawel Jablonski, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, told the radio station Polskie Radio 1 that his country had to prioritise its security when considering the supply of jets to Ukraine.
“It cannot be that Poland has, as the only Nato country, to take the risk, and the other countries would not have to compensate or share it with us in any way,” he said.
Under proposals circulating within the alliance since last week, it had been suggested that Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria would donate up to 52 Mig-29 jets to Ukraine and in return receive F-16s from the US to compensate for the resulting gaps in their air forces.
Josep Borrell the European Union’s most senior diplomat, said the bloc had already begun talking to Kyiv about what aircraft would be best suited to Ukraine’s needs.
However, the plan rapidly unravelled because of worries that it could prompt Russia to escalate the conflict or single out Poland and any other donor states for reprisals. There were also concerns about the time it would take to strip Nato communications technology out of the aircraft and train Ukrainian pilots to use them effectively.
Justin Bronk, an air power analyst at Rusi, a British defence think tank, said: “It is highly politically significant as a symbolic indicator for both the Ukrainian and Russian governments of how far the West is prepared to go in supporting Ukraine.
“However, the cockpit layout and weapons switchology in Polish Mig-29s likely differs sufficiently [and] Ukrainian pilots trained on Ukrainian Mig-29s would need several weeks of conversion training at least to be combat-effective in the Polish jets.”
Yesterday Poland offered the aircraft to the US in the hope this would bring the entire alliance behind the decision and help to shield Warsaw from Russian blowback.
Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister, said: “We have always stressed that Poland is not part of this war, Nato is not part of this war, and that’s why any decisions on the supply of offensive weapons should be taken unanimously by the entire alliance. That’s why we are ready to hand over our entire fleet of fighter jets to the [US airbase] in Ramstein, but we are not ready to make any moves on our own.”
However, officials in the US said the plan was all but unworkable. This was partly because of legal obstacles, including an obligation for the Biden administration to give Congress at least 30 days’ notice before transferring the jets to Ukraine.
The Pentagon said, however, that it would move two batteries of Patriot missiles to Poland. The missiles are designed to intercept incoming missiles to “counter any potential threat to US and allied forces and Nato territory”.
The Ukrainian government has yet to respond to Washington’s rejection of the Polish proposal. Michael McFaul, professor of international studies at Stanford University and a former US ambassador to Russia, urged Duda to hand the Mig-29s directly over to the Ukrainians.
“President Duda, please send your Mig29s to Ukraine, now!” McFaul wrote on Twitter. “No country knows better than Poland what it is like to be invaded by totalitarian dictatorships. Biden and other allies should then deploy F16s with US pilots to Poland and later transfer F16s [to the Polish air force] when available.”
In Moscow, Russia warned the West today that it was working on a broad response to sanctions that would be swift and felt in the West’s most sensitive areas.
Russia’s economy is facing the gravest crisis since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. The West has imposed crippling sanctions on almost entire Russian financial and corporate system following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia’s reaction will be swift, thoughtful and sensitive for those it addresses,” Dmitry Birichevsky, the director of the foreign ministry’s department for economic co-operation, was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency.
A foreign ministry spokeswoman said that negotiations with officials from Kyiv to resolve the conflict were making headway. Maria Zakharova added that the Russian military had not been tasked to “overthrow the current government”.
Zakharova accused the US of supporting a military biological weapons programme in Ukraine, referring to an apparent conspiracy theory that America has supported 26 biological laboratories with “large quantities of dangerous viruses”.
Despite few details and a lack of substantiation, the allegation has been repeated by China’s foreign ministry. “The US biological labs in Ukraine have raised great concerns,” Zhao Liajian, a spokesman said yesterday. “According to media reports, these biological labs store large quantities of dangerous pathogens. Russia, in its military operations, has discovered that the US is using these facilities to conduct biological war plans.”