The United States, Britain and other Western allies are working on plans to transfer Polish fighter or ground-attack jets to Kyiv in an attempt to prevent Russia from gaining total air superiority over Ukraine and intensifying the war.
Speaking from Moldova on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the aircraft-transfer plan was in the works.
“We are looking actively now at the question of airplanes that Poland may provide to Ukraine and looking at how we might be able to backfill should Poland decide to supply those planes,” Mr. Blinken said. “I can’t speak to a timeline but I can just say we’re looking at it very, very actively.”
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly became aware of the plan to bolster the fighting power of the Ukraine air force during her visit to Poland on Wednesday and discussed it with her Group of Seven counterparts in Brussels the next day, said a diplomatic source.
“This idea is more than wishful thinking,” the source said. “We agree that the allies need to support Ukraine and that it cannot be done through NATO. Hence the creative ideas like this.”
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the warplane-transfer effort.
American- or European-built aircraft could not be transferred or sold to Ukraine because its pilots have no experience in flying them. The Ukraine air force largely uses Soviet-era combat jets, among them MiG-29s and Sukhoi Su-25s.
Poland, a former Warsaw Pact country that joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999, has several dozen old MiG and Sukhoi jets that could be flown by the Ukraine pilots. Romania also has a few MiGs, though they are even older than the Polish ones and seem unlikely to be transferred to Ukraine.
But Poland would want any transferred jets to be replaced by American- or European-made jets, such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, made by Lockheed Martin, the U.S. defence giant. Poland already uses F-16s.
The diplomatic source said that Britain could play a role in replacing any Polish warplanes transferred to Ukraine, but that the United States would be more likely to send aircraft to Poland.
The discussions to supply Ukraine with aircraft emerged after Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky used a Zoom call Saturday to tell U.S. lawmakers that his country had an “urgent need” for more weapons, including aircraft. His bid for the aircraft and other weapons came after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg used a news conference on Friday to say that NATO had ruled out establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace.
The United States and its allies, including Canada and Germany, have supplied a large and expanding range of weapons to Ukraine, including Stinger surface-to-air missiles to attack low-flying Russian jets and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Ukraine hopes the weapons deliveries will include aircraft.
Mr. Zelensky’s message was “close the skies or give us planes,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said in a statement after the Ukrainian President’s call.
In a series of tweets, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California said Mr. Zelensky’s “main ask was for the U.S. to allow Poland and Romania to transfer Soviet-era jets to Ukraine and for the U.S. to compensate by giving more advanced fighter plans to those two NATO allies.”
He added: “This is much safer than a ‘no fly zone’ and doesn’t involve Americans killing Russians.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Saturday also called for the delivery of Western warplanes. “It’s no secret that the highest demand that we have is in fighter jets, attack aircraft and air-defence systems,” he told the media after meeting Mr. Blinken on the Ukraine-Poland border. “If we lose the skies, there will be much more blood on the ground.”
The idea of transferring aircraft to Ukraine appears to be gaining momentum but would be fraught with difficulties, including the risk of retaliation from Russian President Vladimir Putin if he viewed the supply of jets as, in effect, NATO entering the war.
On Sunday, Russia’s Defence Ministry warned the countries bordering Ukraine that the use of their airspace or air bases by Ukraine’s military, presumably including the transfer of jets from Poland, would be seen by Russia as their entry into the war.
“We call attention to the fact that the use of air-base networks of these countries as bases for the Ukrainian air force, followed by their deployment against the Russian armed forces, could be seen as the involvement of these states in the armed conflict,” Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a video statement sent to state media outlets.
Mr. Konashenkov said Russian air strikes had eliminated “almost the entire military-capable air force” of Ukraine.
On Saturday, Mr. Putin said he would consider the establishment of a no-fly zone as “participation in the armed conflict.”
The diplomatic source said another problem was determining how to deliver the jets to Ukraine military bases. The source said that likely the aircraft ownership would have to be transferred to Ukraine and carry the Ukraine air-force colours. They would also have to be flown to the country by Ukrainian pilots.
Various American media reports quoted unnamed White House spokespeople saying the White House is open to the idea of sending Polish planes to Ukraine. “That’s a sovereign decision for any country to make,” one spokesman said, quoted by NBC News. “We have in no way opposed Poland transferring planes to Ukraine.”
On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden requested US$10-billion in aid for Ukraine to protect the country from the Russian invasion, now in its second week.
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