Did Europe renege on promised fighter jets to Ukraine?

(AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

Yes and no, but at the least they’ve made the modern version of Lend-Lease more complicated. The heartwarming story of European support for Ukraine’s air force captured imaginations everywhere but in Russia and Belarus, as dozens of military fighter jets got offered for Ukraine’s defense. Pilots came to NATO countries to pick up their rentals last night:


Ukrainian pilots have arrived in Poland to start the process of taking control of fighter planes they expect to be donated by European countries, a Ukrainian government official told POLITICO.

The potential transfer of older Russian-made planes to be used in combat against Russian forces could be the most significant moment yet in a wave of promised arms transfers over the past 24 hours that includes thousands of anti-armor rockets, machine guns, artillery and other equipment.

It’s not clear just yet what countries are donating the jets, but European Union security chief Josep Borrell pledged over the weekend that the EU would fund the transfer the fighter planes from multiple countries.

Today, however, Politico’s Paul McCleary reported that the transfers had been halted (via Twitchy). Other reports corroborated McCleary, saying that the agreements were “collapsing”:


So are Ukrainian pilots walking back to Lviv? Not exactly, but their return routes have become more complicated, Stars & Stripes reports this morning. The issue isn’t lending the planes but going back directly to Ukraine through NATO air space. NATO does not want to give Putin a pretext for widening the conflict:

NATO airspace will not be used to transfer fighter planes to the Ukrainian military, alliance leaders said Tuesday after a meeting in Poland, where top U.S. commanders were on hand for high-level security talks.

Ukraine has requested additional military hardware from the West to help stave off Russia’s full-scale invasion, which was on its sixth day when the NATO talks occurred.

“NATO is not going to be part of the conflict,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “So NATO is not going to send troops into Ukraine or move planes into Ukrainian airspace.” …

“We are not going to send any jets into Ukrainian airspace,” said Duda, who did not indicate if Poland was considering an aircraft transfer over land, or who else might be delivering them.


If that’s the case, how will the Ukrainian pilots get them into the theater of war? Here’s the map of NATO right now:

Needless to say, the new reluctance to allow Ukrainian pilots to fly the jets back home through NATO airspace leaves few options for their use. About the only rational route would have the pilots landing in Chisinau, Moldova first, and then entering Ukrainian air space from that layover. That would put Moldova even more in Russia’s crosshairs while still not having any protection from NATO. Putin already has designs on Moldova, even though its population is only 4% ethnic Russian. Allowing that transit would likely present a pretext for Putin to move his Crimean forces into Moldova — although he’s already bitten off more than he can chew in Ukraine at the moment and might not want to take on another military.

On the other hand, Moldova can be pretty sure they’re next if Ukraine falls. It’s a bad set of choices, but Ukraine’s their bulwark against Putin. Life sometimes hands you lemons …

If Moldova balks, what other options are there? Perhaps Helsinki would be an option, and the Finns are an even tougher group than the Ukrainians. They also know that any Russian imperial ambitions will threaten them directly, which is why Finland is suddenly more interested in joining NATO after nearly 80 years of staying independent.  But that route would take Ukrainian jets through Russian and Belarusian airspace before they could ever get to Kyiv, which would likely be a suicide mission in the older fighters the Ukrainians would be flying.


One other option, perhaps, would be to use Baghdad to move through the Caucasus, across the Black Sea, and into Ukraine over (or close to) Crimea. Assuming all of those nations would ever cooperate in such a venture, it still requires Ukrainians to pass through Russia’s military airspace or Turkey’s — and Turkey is another NATO member. That may be a little easier than the Helsinki route, but not much.

That leaves one other option: pushing the planes across the border on the ground. Why that would be different than allowing the jets to transit directly in the air would be anyone’s guess, but in that sense it’s no different than sending Javelins, ammunition, and small arms across the border by road. The planes would have to get to an airfield quickly, however, as Russian aircraft would easily spot them on the ground and target them for destruction.

This looks like a case of the EU’s mouth getting ahead of NATO’s brain. Pledging the jets certainly made for an appealing emotional gesture to a valiant ally struggling to defeat a wanna-be superpower in a massive, all-out war. Until NATO decides just how far they want to risk a wider conflict, though, Lend-Lease offers should really come from the military alliance rather than politicians in the countries that comprise it. Otherwise, they risk looking fearful and unreliable — which is exactly the impression this is leaving at the moment.


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