The Polish government stunned Washington on Tuesday by announcing it was ready to transfer its 28 MiG-29 fighter planes to the U.S., with the understanding that they would be handed over to Ukrainian pilots fighting off the Russian invasion.
The move, which came with a request that the U.S. supply Poland with used jets with “corresponding capabilities,” came after a week of back-and-forth negotiations between Washington and Warsaw over transferring the jets to Ukraine, which needs replacement jets to fight off the Russians.
After vociferous denials by Warsaw that it was even considering donating MiGs to Ukraine, the offer arrived completely unexpected.
A senior administration official told POLITICO that the U.S. intelligence community and the Defense Department have been opposed to the transfer of the Polish planes to Ukraine, due to the complications in getting them over the border and into the hands of Ukrainian pilots. The Polish government also didn’t consult with their U.S. counterparts before making the announcement.
A statement by Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby reflected that deep concern late Tuesday, saying “we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,” and it is “simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it.”
Kirby signaled the logistics were problematic: refitting the aircraft to allow non-NATO Ukrainian pilots to fly them, along with “the prospect of fighter jets … departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance,” he said.
Still, the U.S. was in touch with the Polish government over the proposal.
In the minutes after the surprise announcement by the Polish Foreign Ministry, a top State Department official struggled to explain to Congress what just happened.
“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,” Nuland said. “So I think that actually was a surprise move by the Poles.”
In a statement posted to its website, the Polish foreign ministry offered to send all of its Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets “immediately and free of charge” to the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany.
In return, the statement said, Warsaw “requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.”
Poland also called on other NATO allies that operate MiG-29 jets “to act in the same vein.”
Ukraine also flies the MiG-29 and has suffered heavy losses since Russia invaded late last month. Top Ukrainian officials since asked other countries that operate the jet to transfer their MiG-29s, since it would mean minimal training for Ukrainian pilots.
By transferring the planes to American custody rather than directly handing them over to the Ukrainians, the Polish government would sidestep the logistical challenge of getting the jets over the border, though it is not clear if the U.S. could legally accept the transfer of the Polish planes.
The Polish MiGs were upgraded in 2013 and 2014 with new avionics and other equipment to increase their lifespan, though the Polish air force has focused more on its growing F-16 fleet, along with its 32 inbound F-35s, the first of which will arrive in 2024. Some of the new, sensitive technologies installed on the MiGs would likely have to be pulled out before transferring to the Ukrainians.
The airspace over Ukraine is still contested, a senior Defense Department official told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, with neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians owning the sky.
“The Ukrainians are still able to fly and to conduct missile defense,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss current operations. “The Russians continue to fly and also are capable of missile defense — very little of the nation of Ukraine is not covered by some sort of Russian surface-to-air missile capability.”
The saga over the planes began just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, when European Union security chief Josep Borrell said Poland, along with other Eastern European countries that still fly Russian fighter planes, had agreed to quickly transfer the jets to Ukrainian pilots.
That turned out to not be the case. Borrell later walked back those comments, saying it was up to individual nations to decide, and Polish President Andrzej Duda publicly rejected the deal.
But U.S. officials confirmed over the weekend that a possible transfer was still under discussion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday the U.S. was working with Poland on plans to supply Ukraine with the MiG-29s, and to “backfill anything that they provide to the Ukrainians,” on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Yet Warsaw seemed dug in, with a government office tweeting on Sunday that “Poland won’t send its fighter jets to #Ukraine as well as allow to use its airports. We significantly help in many other areas.”
As for Poland’s request for U.S. jets, it would most likely receive F-16s in return for giving up its MiG-29s.
Other countries that operate the MiG-29 include Slovakia and Bulgaria, though both countries last week rejected the idea of transferring their aircraft.
Slovakia’s small fleet of MiG-29s are the country’s only fighter jets, and the government is uneasy about losing any of its air power until it wraps up an agreement with Poland to provide protection of Slovak airspace.