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Shot down: How Biden scuttled the deal to get MiGs to Ukraine

A three-way fighter-jet deal to bolster Ukraine’s defenses against Russia is dead — just five days after the White House first revealed an openness to making it work.

With Kyiv begging U.S. officials for more military support, the prospect of Ukraine reaping a windfall of MiG fighter jets caught the world’s attention this past week as the country fights back Russia’s invading forces. But after a dizzying series of public statements, diplomatic messaging and blunt offers to swap the Russian-made planes for American aircraft, it all fell apart.

The saga that started 11 days ago with an errant comment by a top European Union diplomat ended unceremoniously when the chief Pentagon spokesperson and the head of the U.S. European Command separately declared Wednesday that the U.S. wouldn’t take part in an agreement to give warplanes to Poland after it sends its fleet to Ukraine.

“We do not support the transfer of the fighters to the Ukrainian air force at this time and have no desire to see them in our custody either,” John Kirby told reporters, conveying the main sentiment of a Wednesday phone call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Polish counterpart. He added that the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community assessed the warplanes wouldn’t materially improve Ukraine’s chances, but instead would escalate the prospects of drawing NATO directly into the fight.

Officials in Kyiv, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a weekend Zoom call with U.S. lawmakers, have pressed hard to acquire European fighter jets, claiming the enhanced airpower would help them inflict further damage on Russian forces. Videos posted to social media during the two weeks of fighting have shown the invading army massed in large, slow columns bottlenecked on roads, where Ukrainian-operated Turkish drones and ground troops with Javelin missiles have turned hundreds of Russian vehicles into burning husks.

But skeptics inside the Biden administration pushed back on the idea of green-lighting the transfer of Poland’s MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine, and President Joe Biden sided with those skeptics, three U.S. officials said.

“POTUS will do what the military advises here and the advice now is not to do this and instead send the Ukrainian government more things they can make good use of,” a senior administration official told POLITICO. Ukraine has “many planes they already don’t fly much because of Russian air defense.” The official added that it’s “not clear what sending more planes achieves.”

The list of objections is long, from the logistics of getting as many as 28 fighter planes over the border into Ukraine to the stickier issue of flying fighter jets from a NATO country into a war zone, which some officials thought would make the alliance more of a participant in the fight than it already is. The administration considers that overt support as more offensive than the anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles they’re flowing into Ukraine from Poland and Romania.

The transfer might have been possible if the deal was kept under wraps, but that became impossible after Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy chief, declared unequivocally to reporters on Feb. 27 that the bloc would provide Ukraine with fighter jets. The announcement came as a shock to many, U.S. and European officials said, including aides in Eastern European capitals who hoped to keep the transfer quiet.

But the Ukrainian government heard the proposal and ran with it, producing infographics claiming they were about to receive 70 used Russian fighter jets from Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria. A Ukrainian government official told POLITICO that Ukrainian pilots had even traveled to Poland to wrap up the deal and bring the planes back over the border.

Yet Borrell’s bloc, much less the countries actually tasked with supplying these jets, had never agreed to this plan.

The deal was seemingly scuttled on March 2 by Polish President Andrzej Duda, who declared flatly that Polish jets would not enter Ukrainian airspace. The Slovakian and Bulgarian governments told POLITICO they weren’t going to ship any of their MiGs to Ukraine either.

Then things started getting weird.

On Saturday, POLITICO reported that the White House was mulling an audacious three-way deal: Poland would send the MiG-29s to Ukraine, and the U.S. would send F-16s to Poland to replace what Warsaw would give away.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed those talks the following day on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

Poland has a “green light” to send its warplanes, he said. “In fact, we’re talking with our Polish friends right now about what we might be able to do to backfill their needs if, in fact, they choose to provide these fighter jets to the Ukrainians.”

“We’re in very active discussions with them about that,” he added.

Five U.S. officials said there was general agreement within the administration that Washington should work with Warsaw to support Ukraine. But staffers from the Pentagon and intelligence community opposed the three-way plan, namely because they feared the move would drag NATO — and thus the U.S. — into a direct confrontation with Russia. Additionally, the Pentagon voiced concerns that the F-16s required to backfill Poland would need extensive downgrading so as to not potentially compromise highly classified avionics systems installed on those planes.

Biden, per three U.S. officials, agreed with the cautious Pentagon and intelligence view, in part over concerns that Russia would see America openly helping NATO send fighter jets into Ukraine as an escalation.

However, the White House made clear to Poland the U.S. wouldn’t oppose its sovereign decision to deliver the fighter jets if it chose to do so. What the administration couldn’t guarantee was a speedy delivery of the F-16 backfill, telling Warsaw that approving that transfer could be a monthslong process.

To break the deadlock, Poland went for the Hail Mary. In a surprise Tuesday announcement, the Polish government said it was ready to transfer its 28 MiG-29 fighter planes to the U.S. Under the deal, Polish pilots would bring the planes to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and in return, Warsaw expected the U.S. to hand them over to Ukrainian pilots fighting off the Russian invasion.

It was not what the U.S. had initially considered when first hatching this idea with European allies.

“The proposal evolved from something the EU would look at to something that individual EU allies would look at to the latest iteration where we would broker. It’s a far cry from where we were several weeks ago,” a senior State Department official told POLITICO.

The announcement caught the Biden administration by surprise.

“To my knowledge, it wasn’t pre-consulted with us that they planned to give these planes to us,” Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of State for political affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. “I was in a meeting where I ought to have known about that just before I came. So I think that actually was a surprise move by the Poles.”

The administration moved quickly to shut down Poland’s offer. “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,” Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, said Tuesday night.

The tenor in Washington abruptly changed on Wednesday, the same day German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared Polish warplanes would “certainly” not land in Ramstein. “We might’ve been in a different place if this hadn’t turned into the Poles putting this on the table,” the senior State official said.

Blinken told reporters that the U.S. was still open to a deal, but only one in which Poland could send “security assistance” to Ukraine “in the right way.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki then said during her daily news briefing that the U.S. had “understandable concerns” about the Polish proposal.

And that’s when Kirby went up to the Pentagon podium to tell reporters — but really Poland — that the U.S. wasn’t going to do the deal, and listed all the reasons that sending extra MiGs to Ukraine was a bad idea. He also noted that there was no daylight between the State Department and Pentagon’s positions on the issue, saying they both agree it’s not America’s place to tell Poland “what to do or not to do.”

Gen. Tod Wolters, the U.S. European Command chief, shortly after backed up what Kirby said.

“The transfer of MiG-29 aircraft will not appreciably increase the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force. The Ukrainian Air Force currently possesses numerous mission capable aircraft that are flying daily. Adding aircraft to the Ukrainian inventory is unlikely to change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capabilities. Therefore, we assess that the overall gain is low,” he said in a statement.

Officials in Warsaw, who are already dealing with a flood of Ukrainian refugees and acting as the main hub for pushing Western weapons into Ukraine, didn’t want to act alone in sending the jets.

Appearing alongside Vice President Kamala Harris in Warsaw on Thursday, Polish President Duda said his government “wanted NATO as a whole to make a common decision,” about the jets, “so that Poland remains a credible member of NATO — not a country who decides on its own important issues which impact the security of NATO as a whole.”

But the rationale hasn’t quieted critics.

The Pentagon’s concern over Moscow’s reaction to sending jets to Ukraine is “pure deterrence of the U.S. military by the Russians,” said Dave Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who planned the air campaign in the 1991 Gulf War. “If we transfer a pocketknife to Ukraine, Putin’s going to object to that. A weapons system is a weapons system, and NATO is giving Ukraine rifles and missiles, so it’s time to give them airplanes.”

Even if Kyiv doesn’t have the pilots to fly the MiGs, the Polish planes could be used for spare parts for the Ukrainian MiG-29s flying hard hours against Russian forces, Deptula said.

While the Russian air force has stepped up airstrikes in recent days, the war in Ukraine remains largely a ground conflict. There have been a few reports of aerial dogfights, and of aircraft from both countries targeting ground forces. But American military officials have said that two weeks into the war, neither side maintains air superiority, and that both sides have significant anti-air capabilities.

The Ukrainian armed forces on Wednesday claimed to have shot down 56 Russian aircraft, though that number is unconfirmed by any outside sources. Videos have emerged of several Russian fighter planes downed by Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems.

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said Wednesday that the U.K. was considering sending the laser-guided Starstreak shoulder-fired anti-aircraft system, a significant upgrade from the Stinger missiles sent by the U.S., Germany and other allies. The weapon has a range of over 4 miles and can take down fighter planes more effectively than the Stinger.

“We believe the best way to support Ukrainian defenses is by providing them the weapons and the systems that they need most to defeat Russian aggression, in particular anti-armor and air defense,” Kirby said Wednesday. “We, along with other nations, continue to send them these weapons and we know they’re being used with great effect.”

But Ukraine’s Zelenskyy no longer wants to wait for more Western assistance. He wants the jets, and blasted the U.S. and Poland as Russian bombs continued to pockmark his country, and as lumbering Russian columns continue to grind along his country’s highways, slowly encircling his capital city.

“This is not ping pong! This is about human lives!” Zelenskyy said in a speech. “We ask once again: Solve it faster. Do not shift the responsibility, send us planes.”

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