When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the U.S. Congress Wednesday, he is expected to renew pressure on the White House to broker a supply of warplanes to his besieged country.
So far, U.S. President Joe Biden has demurred on the request, out of fear of escalating Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine into a war between NATO and the Kremlin. Defence experts, meanwhile, say there are significant logistical problems with delivering the planes, and it’s not clear they would be particularly effective.
But with a growing chorus of legislators backing Mr. Zelensky’s request, the White House may soon have to acquiesce.
Speaking to a meeting of the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force on Tuesday, Mr. Zelensky foreshadowed the message he will give Congress. Every 20 hours, Ukraine is burning through a week’s worth of current foreign military aid, which includes anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, he said.
“We do everything to get planes. To get air defence,” he told the group by video link from Kyiv. “You know what weapons we need. You know what protection we need. You know we need aircraft.”
NATO has repeatedly rejected Mr. Zelensky’s calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Such a measure would mean U.S., British or other allied planes would have to shoot down Russian fighters, launching an open conflict between nuclear-armed countries. The alliance, however, has left the door open to warplane shipments.
Under the most likely scenario, Poland would send its 28 Soviet-made MiG-29s to Ukraine, and the U.S. would compensate Warsaw with a shipment of F-16s. Poland uses both planes in its air force, but Ukrainian pilots are not trained on F-16s.
Attempts to get the planes to Ukraine have foundered amid disagreements between the U.S. and Poland. The U.S. said earlier this month that it was up to Poland to get the planes to Ukraine. Then last week, Poland unilaterally announced it would send the planes to the U.S. airbase at Ramstein in Germany, and Washington could figure out what to do with them. The Pentagon immediately shot down that plan, pointing to the risk of flying planes from a NATO base into a war zone.
“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand … that’s called World War Three,” Mr. Biden told a meeting of his congressional Democratic caucus.
But pressure from U.S. legislators has been growing since Mr. Zelensky held a private video meeting with them two weeks ago. The bipartisan, 58-member House Problem Solvers Caucus has written Mr. Biden a letter, asking him to grant the warplane request. Forty-two Republican senators have done the same.
“That is what they say they want,” Senator Mitt Romney told reporters at the Capitol last week. “They want MiGs. Get them the MiGs.”
Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, on a visit to the Poland-Ukraine border, told CNN on the weekend: “I’d like to see the planes over there.”
Alexander Downes, an international affairs professor at George Washington University, said sending the planes “doesn’t seem that escalatory,” given other weapons the U.S. is already supplying, such as shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
But this also means the time and energy it would take to send the planes might be more effectively spent getting Ukraine other weapons and equipment. These could include S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles or counter-battery radar that would allow Ukrainian forces to pinpoint the locations of Russian artillery.
“It’s not clear that 20-odd MiG-29s would make that much of a difference. It’s not going to tip the balance in the air,” Prof. Downes said. “It’s not really a huge escalation.”
Getting the planes to Ukraine without flying them in would be particularly difficult: It would entail a time-consuming process of disassembling them to be moved by road or rail, then reassembling them on the other side, he said. Or it could mean taking a circuitous route to deliver them by sea.
There are other practical considerations, too. Ukrainian pilots would have to be trained on the differences between Poland’s model of MiG and their own. Communications systems and maintenance facilities would also have to be set up.
Amy Nelson, a national security expert at the Brookings Institute think tank in Washington, said Mr. Zelensky’s speech will be the “make or break point” for the plane issue. Either it will push Mr. Biden into making it happen, or oblige him to definitively rule it out and clearly explain his reasoning. She said warplanes have now become a singular media fixation, in the same way a no-fly zone was before the White House and NATO decisively turned it down.
“Strategic assessments indicate the transfer of those fighter jets isn’t likely to significantly improve Ukrainian forces and reasonably counter Russian aggression. That, combined with the logistical problems and potential for escalation is why, for the White House at least, it’s dead in the water,” she said.
Congress has already shown significant power to push Mr. Biden further than he wanted to go on punishing Russia. The President was initially reluctant to impose an oil embargo or strip Moscow of normal trade relations, but took both actions last week after broad bipartisan support for the measures.
The U.S. has faced aircraft transportation problems in previous wars. In 1940, for instance, American manufacturers wanted to sell warplanes to Canada and Britain despite the U.S.’s then-neutrality in the Second World War. The U.S. Neutrality Act forbade flying the planes to a country at war. So, the Canadian government bought farmland along the border and towed the planes across.
According to the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal, American pilots landed the aircraft on the U.S. side of the border near Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man., and Woodstock, N.B. The Canadian military used horses and tractors to pull the planes over the line. Once there, Canadian pilots flew them away.
Prof. Downes said such a solution would not likely be applicable in the current situation. For one, Canada did not have to worry about an enemy air force attacking the planes while they were sitting on open ground, which Ukraine would.
“It’s not getting around a law, in this case, it’s a practical risk,” he said.
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