Ukraine Wants NATO Jets. Biden Says Not Yet.

The difficulty in delivering NATO-owned, Soviet-built aircraft highlights the tightrope U.S. President Joe Biden is walking.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman.
Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman.
Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9. Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the West has yet to find a way to deliver high-end arms to support Ukraine’s resistance, raising the stakes both for civilians under siege and an alliance that seems paralyzed. But with Russian missile and airstrikes demolishing schools and hospitals with abandon, calls for Western assistance to contest Ukraine’s skies have only grown.

Over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with U.S. lawmakers to support NATO allies in sending their Russian-made fighter jets to Ukraine, which the Ukrainian Air Force is trained to fly. The United States could backfill any gap in Polish defenses with advanced jets of its own.

But the proposed delivery of some 28 Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine from Poland fell through. On Tuesday, the Polish foreign ministry made a surprise offer to turn over its fleet to Ukraine if it was transferred via the main U.S. airbase in Germany. U.S. and German officials balked. John Kirby, U.S. Defense Department spokesperson, described the proposal as not “tenable”; and on Wednesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany hosting the jets was not an option.

Two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the West has yet to find a way to deliver high-end arms to support Ukraine’s resistance, raising the stakes both for civilians under siege and an alliance that seems paralyzed. But with Russian missile and airstrikes demolishing schools and hospitals with abandon, calls for Western assistance to contest Ukraine’s skies have only grown.

Over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with U.S. lawmakers to support NATO allies in sending their Russian-made fighter jets to Ukraine, which the Ukrainian Air Force is trained to fly. The United States could backfill any gap in Polish defenses with advanced jets of its own.

But the proposed delivery of some 28 Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine from Poland fell through. On Tuesday, the Polish foreign ministry made a surprise offer to turn over its fleet to Ukraine if it was transferred via the main U.S. airbase in Germany. U.S. and German officials balked. John Kirby, U.S. Defense Department spokesperson, described the proposal as not “tenable”; and on Wednesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany hosting the jets was not an option.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin followed up with the Polish defense minister later in the day, underscoring that the United States does not support fighter jet transfers to Ukraine and has no interest in taking possession of the planes.

Russian airstrikes on civilian targets could constitute war crimes, according to human rights groups, international organizations, and preliminary hearings at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. On Wednesday, a Russian airstrike cratered a maternity hospital in the coastal city of Mariupol, Ukraine, burying an unknown number of children in the wreckage. 

With the Russian military using increasingly brutal tactics, calls have grown for NATO to impose a no-fly zone or bolster Ukraine’s air force to prevent Russia from securing full air superiority over Ukraine, which could pave the way for an even more punishing assault. But the confusion caused by Poland’s statement on Tuesday underscores the challenges faced by the United States and its allies as they weigh complicated technical and legal questions and the risk of stumbling into a conflict with Moscow as they seek to bolster Ukraine’s defenses amid a Russian onslaught. 

“Even if everybody had agreed to this right up front, it would still not be real easy to do,” said retired four-star U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who served as NATO’s supreme commander in Europe. 

Poland’s announcement on Tuesday wasn’t the first unexpected statement on the issue. In February, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, said members of the bloc were preparing to provide fighter jets to Ukraine using funding from Brussels. Any such move would have represented a marked leap for Western support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which has thus far been largely limited to shoulder-mounted missile systems, ammunition, and equipment. NATO members Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Poland all have the kind of Russian-made jets the Ukrainian Air Force is trained to fly, owing to their shared history as members of the Cold War-era Warsaw Pact. But all three countries were quick to bat down Borrell’s suggestion. 

“We are supporting Ukrainians with humanitarian aid. However, we are not going to send any jets to Ukrainian airspace,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda on March 2. Poland previously announced it would provide Ukraine with 100 short-range air-to-air missiles last week. 

Any Polish reticence isn’t due to a lack of U.S. support. Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the United States was still actively looking at ways to “backfill” Poland’s fighter jet needs should they decide to send them to Ukraine, but he stopped short of confirming that the Biden administration would go ahead with the move. Other Western officials underscored that point, fearing the Russian military could also pressure the Suwalki gap, a 60-mile-long stretch of the Polish border that runs from Belarus to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which has long been seen as a potential flash point for conflict in Europe. 

“You wouldn’t want to create a capability gap in Poland that the Russians might think made it possible to do something nasty out of Kaliningrad,” a European diplomat told reporters on Tuesday. 

On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it had provided two additional Patriot missile defense batteries to Poland, which could serve as a possible gap-filler if the jets move forward. The United States has delivered nearly the entirety of a $350 million military aid package to Ukraine that was announced last month, but Austin told lawmakers that Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country had begun to complicate ground routes for deliveries of military aid to Ukraine. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a series of ominous warnings to countries that may look to support Ukraine while putting his nuclear armed forces at an increased state of readiness—remarks that have weighed heavily on Western policymakers. “I’m not saying that it’s going to prevent anything from going forward,” said a congressional source speaking on background on the condition of anonymity. “But I think there’s certainly awareness that what we don’t want to have is World War III,” the source said. 

In a congressional hearing on Tuesday, U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland acknowledged that there was still ongoing debate among allies and within the Biden administration over supplying Ukraine with jets from Eastern European allies.

The internal debate over Poland’s plan highlights ongoing difficulties among the United States and European allies about how to provide Ukraine with additional military capabilities as Russia demonstrates an increasing ability to shut down air and ground routes. On Wednesday, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about ongoing military operations, said Russia had fired more than 710 missiles into Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict two weeks ago and had covered most of the country’s airspace with surface-to-air missile batteries. The official still cautioned that Ukraine’s air defense remains “viable and effective” and that Russia had not gained air superiority despite two weeks of fighting. 

“My guess is that the Ukrainians are using very low altitude tactics in order to stay off those threats and only popping up for a very short period of time to engage either ground targets or air targets,” said John Venable, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who now serves as a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “It is the most dangerous and most labor-intensive environment that we can fly in.”

And there remains debate in Western capitals about how effectively Ukraine can use the Soviet-era fighter jets. The European diplomat said Ukraine procuring MiG-29 fighters would “certainly make a big difference in the short term.” Although Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly MiG-29 fighter jets, there is no guarantee that Ukrainian pilots will immediately be able to take to the skies in Polish jets that have undergone a series of modifications and cockpit upgrades. “Yes, they are the same basic airplanes. But no, they may not be the same cockpits. They may not be the same weapon systems. They may not have the same radios, radars that Ukraine has been flying,” said Breedlove, who supports providing jets to Ukraine but underscored that it was not a “turnkey” move. 

U.S. officials believe that throwing more fixed-wing planes into the fray isn’t the solution. “It just isn’t clear to us how this would work,” the senior U.S. defense official told reporters today. 

U.S. and European officials are also worried that Russia could see European provisions of fighter jets into the conflict as escalatory. The senior U.S. defense official questioned the efficacy of “introducing additional aircraft into very contested airspace” when Ukraine has had more success with other capabilities. 

Russia could also use the provision of fighter jets to name-and-shame NATO allies as part of the conflict, a possible cue for wider escalation. “So far, the Russians have not counted us as also being in this fight, which is why things like how the MiGs get to Ukraine becomes an important part of the equation,” the European diplomat said. 

There is strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for facilitating the transfer of jets to Ukraine. “The United States and our NATO allies should do everything we can to compensate countries that heed Ukraine’s desperate call for fighter jets to defend their homeland,” wrote Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Blinken and Austin. 

But Ukraine is losing patience—and blood. Russia’s airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol, which left images of pregnant women covered in blood being carried away from the blast site on stretchers, are likely to fuel calls for Ukraine’s Western allies to step up their support for Ukraine. 

“We do not have time for all this signaling. This is not ping pong; this is about human lives,” Zelensky said in an address on Wednesday. “Do not shift the responsibility. Send us planes.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.