Is Poland Sending Fighter Jets to Ukraine?

The short answer is 'maybe.' But, well, it’s complicated

Is Poland Sending Fighter Jets to Ukraine?
Mig-29 jet fighter sits at the base / Polands Aug. 31, 2014 / Michal Fludra / NurPhoto / Getty Images

It all started with a shocking disclosure. Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, stated over the weekend that the EU will finance the transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine.

Ukraine followed up and issued a statement verifying Borrell’s comments.

This led to a number of media reports speculating which jets would be sent and from where. As a post-Soviet republic, Ukraine has experience with multirole MiG-29s, and out of the former Soviet satellite states of Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria, Poland seems the most likely country to supply jets to the Ukrainian air force.

Ukrainian pilots are currently in Poland, New Lines can confirm, following reporting by Yahoo! News. They are there not for training purposes but for “consultations” with Warsaw on completing the relevant paperwork for a possible handover of aircraft, according to a former high-ranking Polish military official who added that “no decision at the political level has been made” as to whether this transaction will occur.

That source also told New Lines that Poland has 28 MiG-29s it could deliver to Ukraine, and R-73s short-range air-to-air missiles, all of which would be of enormous use to Ukraine in its war against Russia. Some Polish aviation experts think that only 23 of the MiGs are operational.

“The problem is Poland needs MiG-29s, too, because our Air Force works in pairs. Two jets always fly together to intercept or escort any foreign aircraft, such as Russian Su-27s [fighters], that come anywhere near Polish airspace.”

“The Ukrainians got ahead of themselves,” the former official noted, by announcing the transfer of foreign MiG-29s as more or less done and dusted.

Ukraine’s Air Force Command posted to Facebook on March 1 that it was receiving 70 MiG-20s and Su-25s from Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria, adding that 28 MiG-29s would not only come from Poland but “if necessary … be able to base themselves at Polish airports, from which Ukrainian pilots will perform combat tasks.”

As a result, New Lines understands, Kyiv prompted a political controversy in Warsaw, which may now slow down or even halt the delivery of any aircraft much needed for Ukraine’s defenses. On March 1, Polish President Andrzej Duda said there were no immediate plans for Polish planes to be in the air, and officials from Bulgaria and Slovakia said that no military support was forthcoming, according to Politico.

So far, Western military support has largely been confined to the supply of light arms, ammunition, anti-tank missiles and man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). The most significant foreign tool in Ukraine’s arsenal is the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone, of which Ukraine was believed to have 20 in working order. Today Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov announced the further receipt of an unknown quantity of TB-2s from Ankara.

Resupplying Ukraine’s air force with MiG-29s, which Ukrainian pilots are already trained to fly, could be “a game-changer,” in the words of one U.S. military official because these would allow Kyiv to further interdict incoming Russian bombers and jets as well as take out Russian columns and anti-aircraft batteries on the ground.

After its attempt to sack Kyiv and other cities using mainly paratroopers and special forces, Russia has altered its tactics with merciless bombardment of civilian-populated areas. Buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city, now stand ablaze, burnt out or totally destroyed. A Russian missile attack on the TV tower in Kyiv on March 1 left five Ukrainians dead, according to The Washington Post, and at least five more injured. It also struck near the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial that lies just yards away. Today Kherson, a port city on the Black Sea, is under heavy attack with both sides claiming to have it under control.

“We could easily avoid ground-to-air defense systems that the Russians might put in place while also taking out tanks of Russian soldiers,” a Polish pilot told New Lines. “If we can do it with MiG-29s, so can the Ukrainians.”

The Polish MiG-29 have been modernized over the years and have been equipped with NATO communications and reconnaissance systems. These jets would have to be stripped of this equipment and reflagged before being transferred to the Ukrainian air force.

Another issue involves the logistics of getting the planes to Ukraine. As a NATO member state, Poland would not allow Ukrainian pilots to simply fly them from its runways into Ukrainian airspace because doing so would risk provoking Russia and making Poland (and NATO) direct parties to the conflict. It is unclear, the former Polish military officer told New Lines, how the planes would be imported into Ukraine. There is almost no chance that Ukrainians would be able to base these jets on Polish territory.

Initial reports suggested that the U.S. would backfill Poland’s inventory of MiG-29s with the U.S.-made F-16, of which Poland currently has 48 in its inventory. However, Polish pilots tend to prefer the more familiar Soviet-era MiG, which they view as a “better” fighter jet, according to one of them.

Furthermore, Polish technicians have greater experience fixing the Soviet-era planes than they do their American counterparts.

As Ukraine awaits a political decision, Poland has opened a logistical hub to dispatch weapons to Ukraine.

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