Negotiations collapsed as quickly as they met.
Poland’s announcement on Tuesday that it was ready to supply MiG fighter jets to Ukraine via a US air base in Germany sparked alarm in the United States. By Wednesday morning, US and Polish officials were still discussing the possibility of providing fighter jets to Ukraine, an administration official told CNN.
But on Wednesday afternoon, the Pentagon made it clear that it opposes the idea, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin relayed in a phone call to his Polish counterpart.
Minister Austin thanked the Minister for Poland’s willingness to continue looking for ways to assist Ukraine, but stressed that we do not support the transfer of additional combat aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force at this time and therefore do not wish to see them. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said at a news briefing.
It also shows that the Biden administration is still working to get to the same page.
The Pentagon’s rejection of the planes plan came after Secretary of State Anthony Blinken endorsed the idea earlier in the week, and a top GOP lawmaker said there were divisions within the administration over what to do on the issue. Officials tell CNN that all the public discussion of the plan makes it less likely, as it only increases Moscow’s ability to characterize any moves as escalatory and further strains countries like jittery Poland from being in the crosshairs of Russian President Vladimir Putin. .
US officials were very frustrated that Poland announced the offer, saying that it appeared to be a drama for the local audience to try to show that they were doing everything they could to help Ukraine, well aware that logistics had not yet been put in place.
In Warsaw on Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris sought to stress the strength of the Polish-American alliance despite this week’s spat.
“I want to be very clear. The United States and Poland are united in what we’ve done and are ready to help Ukraine and the people of Ukraine,” Harris said alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda during a joint press conference.
Harris avoided addressing the issue directly during the press conference and instead emphasized the military support the United States is already providing to Ukraine due to the lack of air power, including anti-tank missiles, saying, “We’re making deliveries every day in terms of what we can do.” “
Asked what more Ukraine could expect, Harris said, “This is an ongoing process and it will not stop to the point where there is a need.”
Fears of escalation
Kirby’s comments made clear that there were concerns that more direct action could escalate tensions with Russia further and risk dragging NATO directly into war.
An administration official said the United States was concerned that Russia would interpret planes flying into Ukraine from a NATO base as an attack.
“The intelligence community has assessed that the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine could be mistaken as escalatory and could lead to a significant Russian response that could increase the potential for a military escalation with NATO,” Kirby said. “Therefore, we also appreciate that the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine is risky.”
The US and its allies have taken a number of steps to help Ukraine, including providing weapons and enacting sanctions such as the US embargo on the import of Russian oil announced this week by President Joe Biden – another move that Zelensky has publicly pushed. A senior defense official told reporters that most of the $350 million in security assistance approved for Ukraine last month had been sent.
The United States and other NATO members have so far supplied Ukraine with 17,000 anti-tank missiles and 2,000 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, according to a senior US official.
A number of lawmakers in Washington have also called for a no-fly zone, with Republicans and Democrats alike publicly pushing the Biden administration to do more.
“Open up the skies, give them the planes. These issues trump anything else we’re concerned about,” Representative Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, D.C. and co-chair of the Ukrainian Capitol, told Kate Baldwan on Wednesday.
“I can’t stand arguing and drawing lines when Putin actually said sanctions are war. We are providing deadly aid,” he added. “Do we honestly believe that Putin will distinguish between Javelins and Stingers that kill Russians so effectively from the jets that protect the skies above?”
Air defense instead
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Wednesday that the UK would provide Ukraine with air defense systems – while also saying it was not seeking a no-fly zone.
“The best way to help protect the skies is through anti-aircraft weapons, which the UK will now supply to Ukraine,” Truss said at a State Department news conference with Blinken.
Kirby said the Pentagon believes the best way to support Ukraine is to provide it with anti-armor and air defense systems, such as surface-to-air missiles and ground-based air defense systems. Kirby said adding aircraft to the Ukrainian fleet “is not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian air force compared to Russian capabilities.”
“Therefore we believe the earnings from transporting those MiG-29s are low,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Blinken — who said on Sunday that the United States was working with Polish officials to move planes to Ukraine and “bunk” American planes — said the United States was continuing to consult with Poland and other NATO allies on how to provide fighter jets to Ukraine.
“I think what we’re seeing is that Poland’s proposal shows that there are some complications that the problem poses when it comes to providing security systems. We have to make sure that we do it the right way,” Blinken said.
There are also a few other countries that have the planes, including Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, and officials are not ruling out talks with those countries as they seek to find a way forward. One of the officials said Ukraine’s initial request was for Poland, in addition to those three countries, but Poland was the only country that was initially willing to entertain a possible transfer of the aircraft.
Officials describe the issue as twofold: a logistical problem of getting planes to Ukraine, and a political problem of avoiding escalation with Russia. US officials described the Polish plan as failing to adequately address both.
Frustration between Polish and American officials
Sources told CNN that Polish officials, for their part, have said they feel unfairly blamed for the delay in sending fighter jets to Ukraine.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Polish officials told their American counterparts that they would be willing to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 jets. But given the possibility of an escalation of aggression from Russia, the Poles told the United States that they would need replacement aircraft. The United States said none of them would be available until 2024, given that a number of countries, including Taiwan, were ahead of Poland in ranking American-made combat aircraft. So Poland felt it had to put off the idea.
But public pressure on the Biden administration to send the planes escalated dramatically after Zelensky appealed to US lawmakers to facilitate the transition during a Zoom call on Saturday morning.
Before the call, US officials played down the prospects for assistance in transporting the MiGs, which Ukrainian pilots were trained to fly. Officials said they have mainly focused on other areas of security assistance, including sending anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. To some officials, the logistical challenges of getting the planes into Ukraine seemed impractical, and they questioned the effectiveness of the planes.
But Zelensky’s request about the call, which lawmakers described as enthusiastic, seemed to change the equation. Immediately after the session ended, both Republicans and Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, came out in support.
However, a Senate aide argued that the Biden administration was way ahead of Congress in considering the idea of moving planes. The aide said that while Zelensky’s presentation was compelling and there was widespread interest in exploring what was possible, there was no coordinated drive to get the Biden administration to support the transfer.
But US officials said that popular support left the administration with no choice but to stick to the idea publicly, even if some officials were skeptical. Then the United States began sending public messages that the decision was up to Poland alone. Blinken told CBS on Sunday that the US had given Poland a “green light” to send the planes, despite Poland’s assurance to the US that it would not be able to do so without suitable alternatives.
The comments deeply frustrated Polish officials, and after days of being unfairly blamed for the delay, the Polish Foreign Ministry on Tuesday night made a surprising announcement that it was ready to move the planes to the United States, via Ramstein Air Base. In Germany, for the United States to then send directly to Ukraine. The United States soon rejected the idea.
Divisions within the administration
There appears to be an internal split in the Biden administration between officials at the Pentagon and State Department over how to deal with Poland’s proposal, Mike McCaul, the Texas Republican, told CNN Wednesday after a classified briefing on Ukraine.
“The Secretary of Defense has reservations about it and the activation of Article 5,” McCaul said. Asked if Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were split, McCaul said “yes.”
“I encouraged the Secretary to do this when we were in Poland, and he agreed,” McCall said.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that there is a “serious logistical bottleneck,” noting that discussions are underway between defense officials and their Ukrainian counterparts.
An administration official said the bilateral relationship between the two countries remained strong and that additional U.S. security assistance continued to flow into Ukraine via Poland, including on the last day.
A senior defense official said on Wednesday that “the majority” of Ukraine’s air fleet remains “healthy and operational.” The official said the Ukrainians had fixed-wing aircraft on hand, while noting that the airspace over Ukraine remained “disputed”.
“The airspace is in dispute,” the official said. “And as I said yesterday, the Russians have surface-to-air missile parachutes that cover virtually the entire country.”
CNN’s Eli Kaufman, Barbara Starr, Oren Lieberman, and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.
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