US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Poland’s defense minister that the US does not support the transfer of MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force “at this time,” the Pentagon press secretary said, either by Poland transferring them to the Ukrainian Air Force. . Ukraine with the United States fills the fleet of Poland or Poland transfers MiG-29s to the United States to give to Ukraine.
Kirby said Austin “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 in our custody either.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked the West to acquire MiG-29 fighter jets, which were used during the Cold War and which Ukrainian pilots were trained to use, to maintain control of his country’s skies as they are still under attack by Russia.
The United States and the coalition rejected Zelensky’s other request to help create a no-fly zone over Ukraine, seeing it as a move that would pit them against Russia directly. Russian President Vladimir Putin also warned that he would consider countries imposing a no-fly zone “participants in a military conflict”.
Over the weekend, the US said it was in discussions with Poland about a possible deal under which Poland would supply Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets ordered by Ukraine, and then the US would supply Poland with US F-16s.
The US Department of Defense dismissed the proposal as “unacceptable” and considered it too risky.
“The prospect of fighter jets “at the disposal of the USA government” exiting a US/NATO base in Germany to fly into the airspace contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO,” Kirby said in a statement on Tuesday.
US officials described the issue to CNN as twofold: a logistical problem with getting the planes into Ukraine, and a political problem with avoiding escalation with Russia. US officials described the Polish plan as failing to adequately address both.
NATO members have expressed concerns that providing fighter jets to Ukraine — even if done bilaterally — could be seen by Russia as the alliance becoming directly involved in the war, NATO diplomats told CNN.
Polish officials told CNN that Poland, a NATO member and neighbor of Ukraine, was also concerned about the risks of sharing fighter jets with Ukraine, because they did not want to become a party to the conflict and escalate the situation along their border. .
If Article 5 is invoked, the United States and other NATO members would then be obligated to provide resources to protect fellow NATO members and could find themselves directly involved in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
Before Kirby announced that the Pentagon was strongly opposed to Poland’s proposal Wednesday afternoon, senior administration officials told CNN that the United States was continuing to consult with Poland and other NATO allies about the possibility of providing fighter jets to Ukraine.
US and Polish officials have had “a number of conversations” since the White House was surprised by the Warsaw statement, a US administration official told CNN, adding that the relationship between the two countries remains strong despite the dispute.
US officials also told CNN they did not believe the incident precluded the type of agreement that would allow the jets to reach Ukraine.
So far, though, there are no immediate, obvious solutions for the United States to facilitate the delivery of aircraft to Ukraine since Poland’s offer was rejected.
“I think what we’re seeing is that Poland’s proposal shows that there are some complexities that the problem poses when it comes to providing security systems. We have to make sure we’re doing it the right way,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday at the State Department.
The United States has made it clear that sending planes to Ukraine is a “sovereign decision” that Poland will have to make, but it has been willing to help overcome the challenges.
Besides the political quagmire, there are logistical challenges related to sending fighter jets to Ukraine so that the United States and NATO allies can continue to resolve them.
“Secretary Austin, President Milley, and members of our Department of Defense are in contact with their Ukrainian and NATO counterparts to clearly discuss logistical challenges here,” White House Press Secretary Psaki said on Wednesday.
Psaki cited some logistical and operational challenges: getting planes into Ukraine in a non-escalatory manner, possibly having to disassemble planes and putting them back together, and ensuring safe movement of planes in the midst of war.
She later described it as a “serious logistical bottleneck,” saying that discussions on the matter were continuing.
Open questions include how the plane was actually flown from Poland to Ukraine and how many Ukrainian pilots are available, US Ambassador to NATO Julian Smith told CNN reporter Christian Amanpour on Monday.
One idea initially floated was for the Ukrainians to travel to Poland to retrieve the fighter jets and bring them back into the dangerous airspace of Ukraine, which US officials say remains disputed.
Some countries seem willing to consider such a move before Poland offers to send its own MiG-19s. As of Wednesday, US officials are not ruling out talks with those three other European countries as they seek to find a way to transport fighter jets to Ukraine.
This story has been updated with additional information.
Oren Lieberman, Barbara Starr, Kylie Atwood, Eli Kaufman, Kevin Liptak, Jeremy Diamond, Jennifer Hansler, Betsy Klein, and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.