WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Poland said on Tuesday it would hand over all of its MiG-29 fighter jets to the US, possibly moving forward with an agreement that would allow the fighter jets to be handed over to the Ukrainian military if it were to face the invading Russian ones armed forces.
The United States did not immediately confirm the deal, although Western nations have discussed possible ways to respond to Ukraine’s call for fighter jets. Any such decision would boost Ukraine’s morale as Russian attacks on its cities deepen the humanitarian catastrophe. But it also increases the risks of a major war.
The Pentagon initially did not comment on Poland’s announcement, and a senior US diplomat expressed surprise.
“To my knowledge, we have not been previously consulted that they plan to bring these planes to us,” said US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, who told lawmakers she learned about the proposal while driving to testify about Ukraine Crisis before Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I’m looking forward to… returning to my desk and seeing how we respond to their suggestion to bring the planes to us,” Nuland said.
Ukraine has asked for more fighter jets, and Washington has been considering a proposal that Poland would supply Ukraine with Soviet-era fighter jets in exchange for American F-16s to make up for their loss. Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly Soviet-era fighter jets.
Poland’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Poland is ready to deliver the jets immediately and free of charge to the US Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
“At the same time, Poland is asking the United States to provide us with used aircraft with the appropriate operational capabilities,” it said.
The Polish government also appealed to other MIG-29 jet owners to follow their example.
Former Soviet bloc NATO members Bulgaria and Slovakia also still have Soviet-made fighter jets in their air forces.
The surrender of Poland’s 28 Soviet MiG-29s would signal the West’s determination to do more to deter Russia. Militarily it would be unlikely to be a game changer. The number of aircraft is relatively small. The MiG-29s are also inferior to more modern Russian aircraft and could be easy prey for Russian pilots and Russian missiles.
Russia has warned that supporting Ukraine’s air force in Moscow would be seen as participating in the conflict and would expose suppliers to possible retaliatory action.
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 greatly increase the already extreme tensions with Russia. The US does not intend to move the planes directly to Ukraine.
To maintain the pretense that NATO and the EU are not direct participants in the Ukraine conflict, US and Polish officials have considered a variety of options. It will begin with the “donation” of Poland’s MiGs to the United States, Poland said on Tuesday.
In one scenario that was circulated, Poland would deliver the fighter jets to the US base in Germany, where they would be repainted and flown to a non-NATO country outside the European Union. Ukrainian pilots would then come to fly them to Ukraine under this proposal.
Neither country has been publicly identified as a transit point, but Kosovo, a non-aligned country that is very friendly with the United States, was mentioned as one of several nations that might be willing to act as a middleman.
Poland had asked the US to provide it with F-16 fighter jets to replace the MiGs.
However, F-16 production is behind and the next recipient of new supplies is Taiwan, which is facing renewed threats from China and has strong bipartisan support in Congress.
In its statement, the Polish government specifically asked for “used” aircraft, a distinction that would allow the Biden administration to sidestep congressional opposition to making Taiwan wait for delivery of its F-16s.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace earlier on Tuesday said his country would stand by Poland if it handed over the jets, noting it could face the “direct consequences” of his decision.
“And so that we protect Poles, we will help them with everything they need,” Wallace said on Sky News.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said any decision on the delivery of offensive weapons must be taken unanimously by NATO members.
“So we can turn our entire fleet of jet fighters over to Ramstein, but we’re not prepared to do anything ourselves because… we’re not a party to this war,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he believes aid Congress plans to approve later this week for Ukraine will include loan guarantees to help NATO allies replenish their air forces after they gave Ukraine MiGs.
Knickmeyer reported from Washington. AP writer Danica Kirka in London and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.