A Polish Air Force MiG-29A arrives at the 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, England.

A Polish Air Force MiG-29A arrives at the 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, England. Public domain / Adrian Pingstone

Poland Offers Fighter Jets for Ukraine, But US Rejects Swap-and-Send Idea

Warsaw said it would send its MiG-29s to a German air base, leaving delivery to Ukraine up to the U.S. and NATO.

Poland is ready to hand over its MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. But in a twist, Polish officials said they would deliver the aircraft only to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, leaving the decision to send them on to Ukraine up to the United States and NATO alliance. 

The announcement surprised U.S. officials, who quickly rejected the idea. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the proposal of sending fighters from a U.S./NATO base “to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.” 

“It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it. We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,” Kirby said in a statement. 

Poland floated the idea on Tuesday in a statement from its ministry of foreign affairs. 

“The authorities of the Republic of Poland, after consultations between the President and the Government, are 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,” Poland’s ministry of foreign affairs posted on the government’s official website. “At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.”

The back-and-forth followed a weekend where U.S. officials floated the idea of Poland sending its Soviet-era fighters to Ukraine, but was likewise rejected by Poland. The counteroffer on Tuesday underscored NATO member nations’ desire to avoid direct conflict with Russians in Ukraine. 

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the decision to move those jets onward to Ukraine should be a NATO decision, the Associated Press reported from Warsaw

“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,” Morawiecki said. 

The NATO ally has 29 MiG-29s that could be delivered to the United States at Ramstein, but it was unclear how they would be sent onward to the Ukrainian military. 

It is also unclear how Russia would react.

Over the weekend, Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov warned that Moscow would consider any country that provides aircraft to Ukraine to be entering the conflict. 

That warning from Russia and the desire to avoid a NATO-Russia war were among the reasons some NATO countries were initially hesitant to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, and continue to be against establishing a “no-fly zone.” 

“We watch this every day,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters. “We're trying to make sure that we're helping Ukraine defend itself, at the same time not deliberately trying to find a way to escalate this into a broader, deeper, or more violent war than it already is. It's a balance that we try to strike every single day.” 

The announcement and the Pentagon’s rejection of it was the latest twist after a weekend White House announcement that the U.S. was working with Poland to send Soviet-era fighter jets to answer Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for more air power. 

While Ukrainians have been holding their own, and continue to contest the airspace above their country, they are badly outnumbered by the Russian air force. 

The announcement by Poland seemed to catch State and Defense Department officials off guard.

“I saw that announcement by the government of Poland as I was literally driving here today,”  Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. 

“To my knowledge, it wasn't pre-consulted with us that they plan to give these planes to us,” Nuland said. “But as you know, we have been having consultations with them for a couple of days now, about this request from the Ukrainians to receive their aircraft, were they to donate them, whether we would be able to help support backfill and their own security needs.” 

She said she would have to assess how the State Department would respond to the offer. 

Lawmakers pushed Nuland to make sure Ukraine would receive the jets as quickly as possible. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said he was “baffled” that lethal weapons such as Javelins and Stingers could be sent to Ukraine so quickly, while sending the aircraft was such a drawn-out process despite bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. 

“Time is of the essence and we would like to see those planes there yesterday,” Cardin said at the hearing. “If there is additional bureaucratic delay in making this available, I think we want to know about it because we want to be helpful in getting it to the Ukrainians as soon as possible.” 

Nuland promised to tell her colleagues that Congress wants to move quickly. But she said, “There are a number of factors to consider here and there are some mixed views among allies and even within the administration.”

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters traveling with President Joe Biden that it could take years to backfill Poland’s aircraft stock with newer U.S. fighter jets. 

“There were some logistical questions—important ones—that were still under discussion about where those planes would take off from and land, and then there are questions that are probably best, best suited for the Department of Defense about the procurement of planes to backfill, because typically that takes a couple of years,” Psaki said during a briefing aboard Air Force One. 

Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to travel to Poland this week, Psaki said.

Poland has four dozen American-made F-16s, according to the 2022 Flight International World Air Forces directory, and in 2020 signed a contract to buy 32 F-35 stealth fighters. If Washington agrees to participate in Poland’s MiG swap, it could possibly give Poland some of its older U.S. Air Force F-16s that are being retired by the Air National Guard. The Air Force plans to retire 47 F-16s in 2022.

Jacqueline Feldscher contributed to this report.