The Almost Comical Saga of Polish MiG-29 Fighters for Ukraine
(Source: Defense-Aerospace.com; posted March 09, 2022)

By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- The Polish government’s surprise proposal this week to offer its MiG-29 fighters to the United States for onward shipping to Ukraine shows the difficulty Warsaw faces in trying to support Ukraine’s defenses while avoiding provoking Russia.

Poland’s March 8 statement that it is “ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America” blatantly contradicts its on position of just a week earlier, when it vetoed a similar proposal first tabled by the European Union.

EU first proposes fighters for Ukraine

On Feb. 27, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was the first to offer to provide funds for Ukraine to buy unspecified fighter jets from unspecified member states.

It subsequently developed that the proposal would allow EU member states that still operated Soviet-supplied fighters like the MiG-29 or Sukhoi Su-25 -- Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia -- to indirectly transfer those aircraft to Ukraine, which already operates the same models of aircraft and so would have little or no trouble integrating them into its air force.

This followed a surprise announcement by EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who announced that “for the first time, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and equipment to a country under attack.”

The Ukrainian Armed Forces reacted quickly, and in a post on their Facebook account detailed the aircraft they expected to receive; that list is reproduced in this Tweet:


NATO says ‘no way’ and Poland retracts

Things were looking up for Ukraine’s air force until the entire project was dashed during a meeting of NATO commanders in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 1. “NATO appears to have put on the brakes,” the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported March 1.

“NATO is not going to be part of the conflict,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after the meeting. “So NATO is not going to send troops into Ukraine or move planes into Ukrainian airspace.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda appeared to have had second thoughts about supplying aircraft to Ukraine, too. “We are not going to send any jets into Ukrainian airspace,” said Duda, who did not say if Poland was considering an aircraft transfer over land, or who else might be delivering them.

There the matter appeared to rest until March 7, when US newspapers including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal revived the project by reporting that the US government was examining the feasibility of providing Soviet-era fighters to Ukraine.

US revives project, gives ‘green light’

Shortly afterwards, speaking from Moldova on a US television show, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that NATO countries “now have ‘green light’ to send fighter jets to Ukraine.”

Apart from unilaterally reviving a project that NATO had refused just days earlier, Blinken’s statement was seen by some observers as overly patronizing, since the United States has no authority over European nations’ policies, and thus no authority to give them or not a “green light.”

Blinken’s statement was also clearly taken without any consultation with his allies, nor with other US government departments.

Pentagon says proposal “not tenable”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby immediately posted a tweet saying that “It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it. 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.”

Note that Kirby, presumably in the interest of maintaining good relations with the State Department, refers to the idea as “Poland’s proposal,” which it clearly wasn’t, as Warsaw made that clear immediately:

Poland “won’t send its fighters to Ukraine”

Blinken’s statement also sparked an immediate reaction from the office of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, which responded by issuing a statement on Twitter that “Poland won’t send its fighter jets to Ukraine,” adding that it won’t allow its airports to be used for that, either.

It also accused a website that had repeated Blinken’s statement of “spreading disinformation” and “FAKE NEWS!”

Poland’s about-turn hands hot potato to US

Warsaw was obviously under a lot of pressure to change its position, which it did on March 8, surprising most players when it announced that “The authorities of the Republic of Poland …are ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.”

The U.S. State Department's No. 3 diplomat said the Polish proposal caught the United States by surprise, Reuters reported March 8. “To my knowledge, it wasn't pre-consulted with us that they planned to give these planes to us," State Department Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Poland’s is a rather clever gambit, as it shows Poland is willing to do the right thing while passing the hot potato to the United States which, after Blinken’s “green light,” can hardly afford to ignore Poland’s generous offer.

Or not so generous, maybe, as “At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities.” Poland adds it is “ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.”

NATO shows alarming lack of coordination

This near-comical episode also makes clear that, even during a serious political and military crisis, US government departments do not always coordinate their positions, and that Allied governments do not always take positions that are compatible with those of other allies, NATO or the EU. It also shows how vacuous it is, given what has played out before our very eyes, to speak of a “European defense” or a “European army.”

In conclusion, Blinken appears to have talked himself into a corner, and his credibility will depend on how Washington handles the hot potato. Providing fighters to Ukraine will clearly be unacceptable to Moscow, but not doing so will be unacceptable to public opinion cross the world.

This is an issue that, against the dramatic backdrop of the suffering of the Ukrainian people, can provide powerless observers and armchair generals a modicum of amusement.

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