U.S. shoots down plane-swap deal with Ukraine and Poland. What went wrong?

March 9, 2022, 4:37 PM UTC

Cracks seem to be emerging in the Western coalition that suggest NATO allies cannot agree on how to ramp up military support of Ukraine without escalating the standoff with Russia. 

A deal to supply President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s forces with more aircraft to patrol the skies over Ukraine never even got off the ground, when the Biden administration refused to accept responsibility for transferring Polish fighter jets to the country.  

The disagreement comes amid ongoing controversy over Ukraine’s demands for a no-fly zone to protect civilians and refugees, as well as a failure among Western powers to agree on banning the import of oil and natural gas from Russia.

“What a mess,” tweeted Charles Lister, director of the Middle East Institute’s Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program, after initially hailing the deal as “huge news” for the beleaguered country. 

In exchange for used F-16s, Poland had said on Tuesday it stood ready and willing to deploy “immediately and free of charge” all 28 of its MiG-29s fighter jets to the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany, where they would presumably be delivered by American forces to Ukraine.

While the single-seat, twin-engine MiGs can still stack up against Russia’s fourth-generation Sukhoi Su-27 jets, they are no match on paper for the more advanced Su-35 fighters at Moscow’s disposal.

“We are ready to give all of our fleet of jet fighters to Ramstein,” Poland Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters. “But we are not ready to make any moves on our own, because as I said we are not party to this war.” 

‘Surprise move’

It didn’t take long for the idea to be shot down, for lack of a better word, by the Pentagon as “not tenable.” 

The Biden administration seems just as eager to avoid getting its fingerprints all over the MiGs, despite vocal support from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee including Maryland’s Ben Cardin and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen. 

Asked if the U.S. was informed before Warsaw’s announcement, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said in testimony to the committee: “Not to my knowledge, and I was in a meeting where I ought to have heard about that just before I came [to the hearing], so I think that actually was a surprise move by the Poles.”

Despite a bitter feud with Brussels over issues of sovereignty and democratic backsliding, Poland has been among the most hawkish EU countries when it comes to Russia and a stalwart ally of Zelenskyy.

But its decision to go public on the MiGs betrays an odd lack of coordination and highlights just how big a political hot potato the deal is. Reportedly, discussions are continuing now with the idea that Ukrainian pilots may fly to the Balkan country of Kosovo to pick up the Polish MiGs fighters so NATO can properly distance itself from the matter.

“If Victoria Nuland is right that this was not pre-coordinated, then Poland has put the U.S. on the spot,” wrote Radosław Sikorski, a Polish member of the European Parliament and husband of conservative U.S. columnist Anne Applebaum.

Need for creative transportation

As civilian deaths pile up, NATO has been at the horns of a dilemma. It senses the clear threat emanating from an expansionist Russia, but has refused requests to become directly involved in order to contain the war within Ukraine’s borders. 

Escalating tensions now could risk the conflict spilling over into the rest of Europe while potentially galvanizing unity among Russians who might then be more willing to support Putin in a war against the West. 

Donald Trump, who previously praised the Russian president for his clever invasion of a smaller neighbor under the pretense of peacekeeping, even proposed half in jest disguising American F-22 Raptors by slapping the Chinese flag on them ahead of bombing runs on Russian positions.

In a post, the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office, Michał Baranowski, said this was not a decision for Poland, nor the United States, but for the entire alliance. And if it chose to move forward, there would be the “need for creative transportation,” such as the Kosovo proposal that is allegedly under discussion, in order for NATO to keep its hands clean.

“Supplying Ukraine with MiG-29s will likely be seen by Russia as a significant step up in military help for Ukraine,” he wrote. “No one NATO country should be put under pressure to do it alone.”

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