U.S. in talks with Poland on deal to send fighter jets to Ukraine

After speaking via Zoom to Ukraine’s president, U.S. lawmakers from both parties urged the White House to help Kyiv obtain fighter jets from its Eastern European neighbors.

Ukrainian servicemen walk at fragments of a downed aircraft seen in in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.Oleksandr Ratushniak / AP

The Biden administration is holding talks with Poland about a possible deal to help provide Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine, a White House spokesperson said.

The deal would involve Poland donating its old Russian-made MiG fighters to Ukraine, and then replacing them with the purchase of U.S.-made F-16 jets.

“We are working with the Poles on this issue and consulting with the rest of our NATO allies,” a White House spokesperson said. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday confirmed that the discussions are underway but said the timing is still unclear.

“We’re 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,” Blinken said at a news conference during a visit to Moldova.

“How quickly might that happen? I can’t speak to a timeline.”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an urgent appeal in a phone call with more than 300 members of Congress on Saturday for fighter jets and other military aid to fend off invading Russian troops.

“His 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 planes to those two NATO allies,” Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said in a tweet.

Ukraine’s government is interested in the old Soviet-era planes because the country’s military pilots are trained to fly those aircraft and are familiar with the planes. 

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, on Saturday also called on Western countries to provide Kyiv with warplanes to defend the country after holding talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Poland-Ukraine border.  

“It’s no secret that the highest demand that we have is in fighter jets, attack aircraft, and air-defense systems,” Kuleba told reporters after meeting Blinken. 

“If we lose the skies, there will be much more blood on the ground,” Kuleba added.

It was up to Poland whether it wanted to transfer fighter jets to Ukraine, the White House spokesperson said.

“That’s a sovereign decision for any country to make. We have in no way opposed Poland transferring planes to Ukraine,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said there were “a number of challenging practical questions,” including how the planes would get to Ukraine.

After hearing from Zelenskyy, lawmakers strongly endorsed Ukraine’s request and urged the White House to take prompt action to ensure Kyiv was able to get access to fighter jets. 

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., sent a letter to President Joe Biden calling on the administration “to support aircraft transfers to Ukraine from Eastern European allies.” 

NATO members Poland, Bulgaria, and Slovakia are ready to replace their older Soviet era aircraft such as the MiG-29 and the Su-25 with more advanced fighters such as U.S-made F-16 aircraft, Portman said in a statement. 

“We have been told that they are willing to donate these aircraft to the Ukrainians if they are provided assurances and a roadmap that they will be allowed to purchase advanced American aircraft in a reasonable timeframe,” Portman said.

The embassy of Poland in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, indicated last weekend that some member states were ready to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine along with other weapons. But EU officials later walked back the comments.