It's happening: Poland to send MiG-29 fighters to U.S. for Ukrainian transfer in return for F-16s; Update: U.S. rejects

(AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

And to think, it looked like Russell Wilson going to the Broncos in exchange for draft picks would be the biggest trade news of the day.

Zelensky has begged western powers to set up a no-fly zone in Ukraine or, failing that, to at least resupply the Ukrainian air force with fighters to neutralize Russia’s bombardment of civilians. “While Russians are to blame for the killings, responsibility is shared by those who for 13 days in their Western offices haven’t been able to approve an obviously necessary decision, who didn’t save our cities from these bombs and missiles — although they can,” he warned in a video this morning.

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The easiest way to quickly supply him was to have Poland send its fleet of aging MiG-29s to the Ukrainians, whose pilots know how to fly that craft, and then for the U.S. to replace Poland’s missing fleet with F-16s. But as of three days ago, the Poles had cold feet:

Why the hesitation? Fear of Russia, mainly. The Kremlin warned recently that a neighboring country agreeing to host Ukrainian aircraft on its bases could be deemed to have joined the conflict, exposing it to retaliation. Similarly, Polish pilots couldn’t fly the MiGs to Ukraine or else they’d be on the battlefield. If Ukrainian pilots instead traveled to Poland to pick them up, that might be regarded by Russia as the Poles hosting Ukrainian fighters.

There were other logistical issues. Poland would want to remove any classified technology from the jets before transferring them to Ukraine for fear that downed aircraft would be salvaged and analyzed by Russia. The U.S. would also want to remove its own classified avionics from the F-16s before sending them abroad. And, as is true in so many industries in 2022, there’s a supply-chain issue: “There is also an F-16 production backlog, which means the countries that potentially give away their MiGs and Su fighters to Ukraine would need to wait for the backfill for some time.”

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As of yesterday, it looked like the deal was dead, “doomed for both technical and geopolitical reasons,” per Axios. “Gentlemen, as Secretary General has now said, we are not sending any jets to Ukraine because that would open a military interference in the Ukrainian conflict. We are not joining that conflict. NATO is not a party to that conflict,” said Polish prime minister Andrzej Duda a week ago. But work on a deal proceeded: As recently as yesterday, Tony Blinken claimed that Poland had a “green light” from the U.S. to transfer the aircraft.

And then came the bombshell this afternoon:

The authorities of the Republic of Poland, after consultations between the President and the Goverment, are ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Rammstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.

At the same time, Poland 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.

The Polish Government also requests other NATO Allies – owners of MIG-29 jets – to act in the same vein.

Poland isn’t transferring any jets to Ukraine. It’s transferring them to the United States, at one of its bases in Germany. The United States will then transfer the jets to the Ukrainians, who’ll presumably travel to Rammstein and fly the jets back to Ukraine themselves.

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That’s no different in substance from the Ukrainians traveling to Poland and flying the jets out of Warsaw. They’re simply taking a longer route, from Poland to Germany and then from Germany to Ukraine. The expectation — or hope, rather — is that Putin might have been tempted to swipe at Poland if they allowed the Ukrainians to use one of their bases to pick up the planes but he won’t dare swipe at the U.S. for letting them do it at Rammstein.

But what if Putin chooses to hold Poland ultimately responsible anyway?

Seems like a risky escalation. I hope it pays off for everyone. Will it?

Top Russian military expert Michael Kofman says it’s a mistake to “waste time” on the MiG debate, arguing there are other supplies and weapons systems that would be more helpful to Ukraine.

“Frankly, a lot of the aircraft Ukraine has put up has gotten shot down,” Kofman said.

“And pushing MiG-29s — are they really going to fly from air bases that are being readily barraged on a daily and nightly basis?”

For how much longer will Ukraine continue to have operable airfields? Maybe the gamble here is that Russia is simply too weak to push west towards the Polish border if and when it takes Kiev and therefore Ukrainian jets will have safe haven in the western half of the country.

Relatedly, do we think the Poles ever would have agreed to this deal if the Russian military hadn’t underperformed over the past two weeks? I linked this Times story earlier about eastern European powers viewing Russia’s military power in a new light as the country continues to struggle in battle against Ukraine. Maybe the Poles have concluded that a very risky provocation like sending a fleet of fighter jets to a country under Russian invasion isn’t as risky as it was a week ago. If Russia can’t subdue the Ukrainians, how will it subdue the Ukrainians plus a NATO-backed Poland?

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Also relatedly:

Do Putin and Russia need a breather? Humanitarian ceasefires aren’t standard operating procedure for their country. Stay tuned.

Update: My god, what a fiasco. This afternoon Victoria Nuland, a top official at the State Department, surprised everyone by saying that Poland’s statement about the MiGs wasn’t “preconsulted” with the U.S. Which seemed … unimaginable. How could the two sides not be coordinating on this?

Now comes a statement from the Pentagon dismissing the Poles’ plan to transfer the MiGs to Rammstein. Evidently the U.S. also has cold feet about letting the Ukrainians take off from one of their bases:

Did the Kremlin call up the White House and warn them that the Polish plan would amount to an act of war?

What a colossal humiliation to have two NATO allies now in a public spat, with each side seemingly afraid to equip Ukraine with jets despite having openly discussed the idea for days. If the U.S. and Poland weren’t prepared to let the Ukrainians pick up the jets from any NATO airbase, why was this plan ever floated in the first place?

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John Stossel 1:00 PM | June 15, 2024
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