WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland said Tuesday it would give all of its MiG-29 fighter jets to the U.S., potentially advancing an arrangement that would allow the warplanes to be passed along for use by Ukraine’s military.
The United States did not immediately confirm the deal. Any such decision would be a morale booster for Ukraine as Russian attacks on its cities deepen the humanitarian catastrophe. But it also raises the risks of a wider war.
The Pentagon had no immediate comment on Poland’s announcement, and a senior U.S. diplomat expressed surprise.
“To my knowledge, it wasn’t pre-consulted with us that they plan to get these planes to us,” said U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, who told lawmakers she learned of the proposal as she was driving to testify about the Ukraine crisis before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I look forward … to getting back to my desk and seeing how we will respond to this proposal of theirs, to get the planes to us,” Nuland said.
Ukraine has been pleading for more warplanes and Washington has been looking at a proposal under which Poland would supply Ukraine with Soviet-era fighters and in turn receive American F-16s to make up for their loss. Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly Soviet-era fighter jets.
The Polish Foreign Ministry announced in a statement that Poland was ready to deliver the jets to the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany immediately and free of charge.
“At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities,” it said.
The Polish government also appealed to other owners of MIG-29 jets to follow suit.
Former Soviet-bloc NATO members Bulgaria and Slovakia also still have Soviet-made fighter jets in their air forces.
The handover of Poland’s 28 Soviet-made MiG-29s would signal Western resolve to do more to deter Russia. But militarily it would be unlikely to be a game-changer because the number of aircraft isn’t that big. Also, the MiG-29s are inferior to more sophisticated Russian aircraft and could be easy prey for the Russian air force.
Russia has warned that supporting Ukraine’s air force would be seen in Moscow as participating in the conflict and open up suppliers to possible retaliation.
It would also weaken Poland’s own air force at a time of heightened danger in Eastern Europe.
A transfer of the MiGs to Ukraine is fraught with complications as neither NATO nor the European Union want to be seen as directly involved in the transaction, which will significantly raise already extreme tensions with Russia. The U.S. has no plan to directly transfer the planes to Ukraine.
In order to maintain the pretense that NATO and the EU are not direct participants in the Ukraine conflict, U.S. and Polish officials have been considering a variety of options. One begins with the “donation” of Poland’s MiGs to the United States, as Poland announced on Tuesday.
Under one scenario that has been floated, Poland would deliver the fighter jets to the U.S. base in Germany, where they would be repainted and flown to a non-NATO, non-European Union country. Ukrainian pilots would then come to fly them to Ukraine, under that proposal.
No country has been publicly identified as a transit point, but Kosovo, a non-aligned country that is very friendly with the United States, has been mentioned as one of several nations that might be willing to serve as a middleman.
Poland had been asking for the U.S. to provide it with F-16 fighter jets to replace the MiGs.
F-16 production is backlogged, however, and the next recipient in line for new deliveries is Taiwan, which is facing renewed threats from China and has strong support from both parties in Congress.
In its statement, the Polish government specifically asked for “used” planes, a distinction that would allow the Biden administration to bypass congressional opposition to making Taiwan wait to receive its F-16s.
Earlier Tuesday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said his country would stand by Poland if it handed over the jets, noting that it could face the “direct consequence” of its decision.
“And so we would protect Poland, we’ll help them with anything that they need,” Wallace said on Sky News.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said any decision about delivering offensive weapons must be made unanimously by NATO members.
“This is why we are able to give all of our fleet of jet fighters to Ramstein, but we are not ready to make any moves on our own because … we are not a party to this war,” he said.
Knickmeyer reported from Washington. AP writer Danica Kirka in London and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.