Western reactions to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine have notably included provisions of lethal military equipment to the besieged country. These donations are crucial not only to Ukraine’s successful defense but also for securing the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and deterring further westward incursions by Russia. From the perspective of decision-makers in Moscow, NATO’s level of determination in backing Ukraine translates directly to the resilience of the Alliance’s eastern frontiers. According to its modus operandi, Russia is gradually but progressively “salami slicing” its way up the escalation ladder. The most recent examples of this were Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s warnings that Russia could target Western shipments of military equipment to Ukraine (Interfax, March 10) and the March 13 missile strike on Ukraine’s Yavoriv military base and training center, located only 20 kilometers from the border with Poland (UNIAN, March 14). Certainly, Moscow is assessing the West’s capacity to deliver a unified, collective response, devoting particular attention to NATO coherence and the United States’ activities in this realm. Thus, the US-Polish debate over the transfer of Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine has had a profound impact on Russian perceptions and, therefore, the relative security of the Alliance’s eastern flank.
It was only after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first (March 5) virtual appeal to the US Congress for greater assistance (see Part One in EDM, March 15) that the vague debate over the transfer of military aircraft to Ukraine undeniably crossed over into the United States. Anonymous US officials ambiguously suggested to the media they were working on the issue with European partners. But in reaction, the Polish side once again vehemently denied this “misinformation” (Twitter.com/PremierRP_en, March 6). The brewing debate reached its climax when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said publicly that Poland has a “green light” to send its fighter jets to Ukraine (wGospodarce.pl, March 6).
In Warsaw, Blinken’s statement was interpreted as an attempt to shift the sole responsibility (buck-passing) over the jet transfer to Poland; and it was additionally perceived as an implicit expression of paternalistic and de jure superiority—as if the US had to “legally authorize” its “vassal’s” actions. De facto, of course, the United States is Poland’s primary security guarantor and the main point of reference in Warsaw’s foreign policy. Thus, the State Department head’s comment read like a clear signal for Moscow that Washington was hesitating to back the idea and, most probably, was not ready to assist Ukraine with this type of weaponry.
At the same time, the “green light” remark put Warsaw in a daunting position, especially vis-à-vis its relations with Kyiv and regarding Poland’s own military abilities. Hence, on March 8, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau published the government’s official response, informing that Poland “is ready to deploy—immediately and free of charge—all their MiG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America” and “requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities” (Gov.pl, March 8). The initiative, thus, was given back to Washington. From Warsaw’s perspective, high-profile military aid to Ukraine from the US—as NATO leader, politically more influential player, and one much less exposed to Russia’s expected direct response—would be treated differently in Moscow than if Poland conducted a similar step unilaterally. At the same time, Poland was pushing for common Allied responsibility for such a transfer, and it did not want to expose itself to accusation of bringing NATO closer to an armed confrontation with Russia.
The statement by Poland’s foreign ministry was welcomed enthusiastically and approvingly by the vast majority of Polish analysts (e.g.: Facebook.com/witold.jurasz.16, March 9); while some of them raised doubts about Washington’s true policy intentions. The swift official US answer to Warsaw included the claim that the Polish proposal “raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance” (Defense.gov, March 8). Numerous Polish analysts questioned why a unilateral decision to supply fighter jets to Ukraine, if made by Poland (and previously given the “green light” by Blinken), would not raise concerns, but the same decision made at the NATO level would (e.g.: Twitter.com/m_m_piotrowski, March 9).
It seems that from the Polish standpoint the topic was officially “closed” on March 10, during the press conference of President Andrzej Duda and US Vice President Kamala Harris, when the Polish head of state declared a transfer of the jets would be possible only at the NATO level (Prezydent.pl, March 10). Duda repeated the same point in a March 13 interview for BBC One, emphasizing that “the Alliance could have resented us because of such a decision because it could potentially put the entire Alliance in a difficult position in relation to Russia” (Prezydent.pl, March 13).
The real reason, however, was not the Alliance or its reaction as such. Most probably, Poland would have provided Ukraine with its Soviet-legacy planes if it was backed politically and materially by the US. But because Washington publicly dithered, Warsaw felt it could not continue its efforts. First, the logic went, if any potential military incident erupted as a consequence of Poland’s unilateral decision, it would be understood as a Polish-Russian issue not a NATO-Russian one, because of Warsaw’s “unwise and provocative” decision. Second, Poland would not weaken its own defense capabilities by transferring one third of its fighter jets to Ukraine without a replacement. Since this “back-fill” could realistically only come from the US, which demurred, Poland realized the MiG transfer was unachievable.
In the end, Ukrainian attempts to internationalize its war against Russia, coupled with the misinterpretations and ambiguous messaging from both the US and Polish sides, drove and shaped the idea of donating Poland’s Soviet-made fighter jets to Ukraine; but the saga also had a dramatic influence on perceived NATO coherence. The public dispute and continual buck-passing over the issue somewhat strained US-Polish relations, which were only party improved by Washington’s decision to dispatch two Patriot air-defense batteries to Poland (Defence24, March 9). Adding to the primarily political considerations of the MiG-transfer initiative, there were naturally some practical and technical matters to work out—such as how to immediately transport the aircraft to Ukrainian territory without using NATO airfields and how to quickly and adequately replace a third Poland’s fixed-wing fighter fleet. Yet those questions did not receive sufficient deliberation, because the allied hesitation on the overall jet transfer deal—especially from Washington—deepened the crack in NATO’s common policy toward arming Ukraine. This must have been noticed in Moscow and raised Russian confidence that it will be able to oppose future such initiatives with more bluster and saber rattling. Consequently, for the foreseeable future at least, the plan to supply the Ukrainian Air Force with fighter jets looks impossible to implement out in the open.