Poland offered to transfer its fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets to the US in a complex plan to send the warplanes to Ukraine, but the proposal suffered a setback when the Pentagon declared the scheme untenable.
Under the proposal announced Tuesday by Warsaw, the Polish air force would hand its Russian-made MiGs to the US, which would then transfer the aircraft to Ukraine, whose pilots are trained to fly the fighter jets.
But a senior state department official said Washington had not been consulted on the plan before Warsaw publicly made the offer, and the Pentagon suggested it could pull Nato directly into a war with Russia.
“The prospect of fighter jets ‘at the disposal of the . . . US’ departing from a US Nato base in Germany, to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine, raises serious concerns for the entire Nato alliance,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.
“It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it,” Kirby added. “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.”
The US and Nato have been wrestling with the high-stakes challenge of arming Ukrainian forces without crossing a line that could be seen as entering into a direct conflict with Russia.
According to a US official, Warsaw originally proposed the idea of a plane swap to Washington in an effort to both help Ukraine and enhance Poland’s air force by replacing the MiGs with US-built F-16 fighters. But the original plan was for Poland to give the MiGs directly to Ukraine.
Victoria Nuland, a senior state department official who has been directly involved in Ukraine policy, told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that she had no knowledge of the plan to use the US as an intermediary.
“To my knowledge, it wasn’t pre-consulted with us,” Nuland said.
The idea of sending Polish MiGs to Ukraine had been a point of debate within the Biden administration but was discounted before Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, asked the US to reconsider at the weekend.
According to one person familiar with the American stance, Washington initially told Warsaw that it did not support any plan to send Polish fighters to Kyiv after some US officials raised concerns that it risked drawing the US into a conflict with Russia.
But the White House quickly pivoted on Sunday after Zelensky made an emotional plea in a Zoom call with a bipartisan group of roughly 300 members of Congress. Zelensky’s proposal was first reported by the Financial Times.
Despite initially expressing strong reservations to any swap, within hours the White House told the FT that it was in negotiations with Poland on the proposal.
Zelensky has appealed to Nato members who own old Russian-made warplanes to give them to Ukraine, and urged the US to replenish those air forces by providing them with F-16s — a Lockheed Martin fighter that is the most used combat jet in Nato air forces.
Polish officials had expressed reservations about any transfer without securing the full backing of Nato. But on Tuesday, Warsaw announced that it was prepared to send its MiGs “immediately and free of charge” to Ramstein, a US air base in Germany, and put them at the disposal of the US.
“At the same time, Poland requests the US to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities,” the Polish foreign ministry said, adding that it was willing to pay for the F-16s. It also urged “other Nato Allies — owners of MiG-29 jets — to act in the same vein”.
A senior Polish official said that its new proposal was designed to show that Poland was committed to supporting Ukraine, while muddying the waters over which Nato members were behind the transfer, particularly if other countries followed suit.
“There was an unfair game against Poland and accusations that we were holding up the process of giving the MiGs to Ukraine,” the Polish official said. “Suddenly there were suggestions that sending the planes should be a sovereign decision of Poland, rather than a decision of the whole alliance.”
Not many other former Soviet-bloc Nato members have MiG-29s that would be suitable for Ukrainian pilots, however. A Bulgarian official said it does not have enough to make an impact, adding that Sofia has been told by Washington it would not ask for its jets. Romania, Croatia and Slovenia have MiG-21s, which Ukrainian pilots are not trained on.
Slovakia has MiG-29s, but like Bulgaria they have no alternative fighters, meaning they could not easily take delivery of F-16s, which are already in the Polish arsenal.