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Why did the U.S. reject Poland's plan to give Ukraine its Soviet-era fighter jets?

The political and logistical complications of Poland's proposal led to a quick rejection from Washington.
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WASHINGTON — Ukraine wants warplanes. Its allies have plenty. But getting fighter jets to Ukraine is much more complicated than it might seem.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration rejected a proposal from Poland that would have made its old Russian-made MiG fighters available to a U.S. base in Germany for potential handover to Ukraine, because it would be a “high risk” step that could ratchet up tensions with Russia, the Defense Department said.

The difficulties are legal, logistical and political. Top leaders of NATO — the alliance of 30 countries that includes the U.S. and Germany — want to help Ukraine but have resisted actions that could drag it directly into Moscow’s war against its neighbor.

Officials so far have deemed Ukraine's appeals for additional fighter jets, as well as requests to impose a no-fly zone, as moves that would risk direct conflict with Russia.

Why did Ukraine want warplanes from Poland in the first place?

U.S. or Western European planes are out of the question, because Ukrainian pilots don’t know how to fly them. 

“Their military is basically built off the Soviet-Russian military, so they operate Soviet-Russian equipment,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress who oversaw international security assistance in his former role as a State Department official. “It’s a bit like if you give someone an iPhone who has always had an Android. And you don’t want to be reading a flight manual while you’re at war.”

That’s why countries in the former East bloc that are now part of NATO, like Poland and Latvia, have offered to send their MiG jets to Ukraine in exchange for a promise from Washington to replace them with newer U.S.-made planes in the future.

Why the U.S. balked

The Pentagon has said that in practice, the trade proposal isn’t “tenable.” Washington has also promised its next batch of sales of F-16 fighters to Taiwan to counter China.

Countries sell or give away new and used military defense equipment to foreign countries all the time — the State Department oversees $55 billion a year in sales — and it’s typically the responsibility of the buyer to go pick it up.

But Western officials worry that if Ukrainian pilots go to a NATO country to pick up fighter jets and then fly them back into contested Ukrainian airspace, where they might have to engage with Russian fighters, Moscow will view the country they left from as a combatant and therefore fair game.

And NATO’s core tenet, spelled out in Article 5 of its charter, is that an attack on any member country is an attack on all, meaning all 30 member states would be obligated to join the fight. 

“The intelligence community has assessed the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in Russian reaction that could increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

Some have discussed shipping the fighter jets overland or even dismantling them and reassembling them inside Ukraine. But Kirby said U.S. military and intelligence officials determined that more jets are "not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian air force relative to Russian capabilities."

Experts outside the government have noted that Ukraine hasn’t deployed many of the MiGs it already owns, which makes them wonder whether the country has the complex infrastructure needed to support the aircraft, from trained pilots and mechanics to extra parts, munitions and jet fuel.

The losses suffered by Ukraine’s air force in the Russian invasion have been compounded by “years of neglect and underfunding,” according to the Congressional Research Service. “Most of Ukraine’s planes and air defense systems are over 30 years old.”

The country’s major air power success seems to have come largely from Turkish-made drones, not manned fighter jets.

Russia’s air force has suffered from its own apparent logistical limits; however, it still has more modern aircraft than MiG-29s, which first took to the air in the late 1970s.

“The broader thing is that this is probably all just a waste of time,” Bergmann said. “Would we just be putting Ukrainians up in 30-, 40-year-old fighter jets that are just basically flying coffins?”