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Poland To Equip Ukraine With Warplanes, Raising Stakes In Ongoing Conflict
The promise from Poland's president, Andrzej Duda, fell short of Ukrainian requests for more advanced F-16 fighter aircraft from the US but was greeted as “great news coming soon” by Ukraine's chief of staff, Volodymyr Zelenskyy
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Poland's president said on Thursday that his country would send four Soviet-designed MiG fighters to Ukraine “literally in the next few days,” possibly pushing Western military aid to the embattled country past a critical barrier.
The warplanes would be the first sent by a NATO nation to Ukraine since Russia invaded last year.
The promise from Poland's president, Andrzej Duda, fell short of Ukrainian requests for more advanced F-16 fighter aircraft from the US but was greeted as “great news coming soon” by Ukraine's chief of staff, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
There was still some doubt.
Poland first promised such fighters a year ago, in the weeks following Russia's invasion, but has yet to send any. Previously, Polish officials stated that they would only deploy warplanes to Ukraine as part of a coalition with other countries.
On Thursday, it was unclear which other nations with MiG jets were prepared to join or whether Poland would go it alone. And there was some doubt about Warsaw's ability to move as fast as it hoped.
On Thursday, Poland's defence minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, told Polish Radio, a state-owned broadcaster, that “we really want to hand over MiGs in a broader coalition” with neighbouring Slovakia and possibly other countries. He didn't say whether this was a requirement or just a wish.
Some saw Duda's MiG announcement as a continuation of Poland's recent effort to pressure other countries, particularly Germany, into providing Ukraine with German-made Leopard 2 tanks.
That endeavour was successful. After months of deliberation, Germany agreed in January to supply advanced battle tanks to Ukraine and granted permission to other nations to do the same. As part of the deal, Washington promised to supply Ukraine with powerful M1 Abrams tanks.
However, some of Ukraine's allies have looked far more hesitant when it comes to warplanes, and it appeared Thursday that the US was not changing its stance.
“It doesn't change our calculus with regard to F-16s. It is not currently on the agenda. And a declaration by another country to supply fighter aircraft has no bearing on or changes our own sovereign decision-making,” said John Kirby, a White House spokesperson.
The debate over fighter jets occurred as Russian and Ukrainian troops in the country's east stayed embroiled in a battle reminiscent of World War I, particularly around Bakhmut, where both sides suffered heavy losses.
Ukrainian military officials expressed confidence in their ability to hold on to the devastated city, despite warnings from military experts and Western officials that the battle was unsustainable and, more importantly, could jeopardize Ukraine's planned springtime counteroffensive.
According to Col Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine's military eastern command, fierce fighting continued in Bakhmut on Thursday, and Ukrainian troops were still holding back a Russian advance. “They exhaust, bleed, and knock out the enemy's combat power in terms of personnel and equipment,” he explained.
To accomplish this, Ukraine's military fires thousands of artillery shells per day, resulting in significant casualties. The bombardment has been so intense that the Pentagon recently voiced concerns with Ukraine after several days of nonstop artillery fire, according to two US sources.
With artillery shell supplies dwindling, Ukraine's allies have rushed to ramp up output. With the exception of Hungary, all European NATO members have expressed strong support for Ukraine and, in many instances, have sent it weapons.
Fighter jets have been more contentious, but with both Ukraine and Russia preparing for anticipated spring offensives, the discussion is shifting, albeit mostly in Europe's once-communist eastern fringe, where hostility to Russia is especially acute. Some people there advocate for giving at least older aircraft.
The Biden administration has resisted sending US fighter aircraft to Ukraine, citing the time it would take to train pilots to assist in the arduous military operations. Given Russia's air dominance, it could also be risky.
Following a meeting in Warsaw on Thursday with the Czech Republic's new president, Petr Pavel, a retired general and former head of NATO's Military Committee, the Polish president announced the delivery of MiGs to Ukraine. Duda stated that four MiGs would be shipped immediately, followed “gradually” by more than a dozen others from Polish stocks once repaired and ready.
Poland has 28 MiG-29s, the majority of which it acquired from Germany after absorbing East Germany and disbanding its Soviet-equipped air force. Not all of them are operational.
Duda stated that the jets would be replaced by FA-50s from South Korea, the first of which will be shipped later this year, and F-35s from the United States.
He made no note of the fact that their delivery to Ukraine was contingent on the formation of a coalition with others.
The Polish president spoke a day after a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which includes all 30 NATO members as well as more than 20 other nations dedicated to assisting Ukraine in its defence. The conference concluded with no agreement on warplanes.
Slovakia, which borders both Ukraine and Poland, has stated that it is willing to dispatch some of its own stock of Soviet-era warplanes, but the coalition government that made that pledge fell apart in December. A caretaker administration has taken over, and its authority to make critical security and foreign policy decisions is being challenged.
Poland, which shares a 330-mile border with Ukraine, is home to over 1.5 million conflict refugees and serves as the primary transit route for Western arms entering Ukraine. It has long lobbied its NATO allies to dispatch more and better weapons to aid Ukrainian forces in their battle against Russia.
Polish officials' strong support for Ukraine also plays well politically at home, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for later this year and the conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, faces a difficult challenge.
Solidarity with Ukraine is one of the few issues that cross party lines, uniting nationalists, mainstream conservatives, and liberals who are vehemently opposed to Law and Justice on issues such as abortion, and it could aid Law and Justice in the polls. Only extreme right-wing groups, who are hostile to all migrants and refugees, including Ukrainians, reject aid to Ukraine.
However, Poland has occasionally overreached in its desire to assist Ukraine.
It stated in March that it was prepared to transfer its fleet of MiG-29s to Ukraine on the condition that the US replace them with more modern US-made aircraft.
However, the plan fell apart when Poland suddenly declared that instead of sending the planes directly to Ukraine, they would be transferred to a US air base in Germany. Washington, taken aback by a plan on which it had not been consulted, dismissed the proposal, and none of the planes left Poland.