US ‘working actively’ on exchange deal with Poland to send fighter jets to Ukraine

Secretary of State Blinken confirms talks underway for Warsaw to send Soviet-era aircraft to Ukraine in exchange for receiving American F-16 fighter jets

Polish Army soldiers march in front of a Polish Air Force F-16 fighter jet in Janow, Poland, July 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)
Polish Army soldiers march in front of a Polish Air Force F-16 fighter jet in Janow, Poland, July 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

CHISINAU, Moldova (AFP) — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the United States was “working actively” on a deal with Poland to supply Ukraine with jets to fight invading Russians.

The deal, according to reports, could involve Poland handing over its existing MIG-29s, a Soviet/Russian-made jet fighter Ukrainian pilots are familiar with, and the US would then provide its F-16 fighters to Poland as replacements.

US officials, including Blinken, had downplayed the possibility of any NATO country supplying besieged Ukraine since the beginning of this week. But speaking in Moldova on Sunday, Blinken confirmed it was under active discussion.

“Can’t speak to a timeline, but I can just say we’re looking at it very, very actively,” he told reporters. “We are looking actively now at the question of airplanes that Poland may provide to Ukraine and looking at how we might be able to backfill should Poland decide to supply those planes.”

The comments came one day after Blinken met Ukraine’s foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on the Poland-Ukraine border and Kuleba pressed him for the aircraft.

After 10 days of a brutal war, Kuleba said, “The highest demand that we have is in fighter jets, attack aircraft, and air-defense systems.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference with the Moldovan president at the Presidential Palace in Chisinau, March 6, 2022. (OLIVIER DOULIERY / Pool / AFP)

“If we lose the skies, there will be much more blood on the ground,” he said after the meeting, with Blinken standing beside him.

While a significant part of Ukraine’s air force remains intact since the war began on February 24, both Ukraine and Russia have sustained significant losses and neither controls the airspace over the country.

But Russia has a massive air force that if fully mobilized could decimate Ukraine.

The United States had resisted a deal, along with some key NATO members, concerned that Russia would interpret it as NATO — Poland is a member — actively joining the Ukraine war, and spark a much wider conflict.

But supporters of furnishing Ukraine with more aircraft from a NATO country argue that the alliance, and the US especially, have already been giving Kyiv’s army tons of lethal weaponry and munitions every day since the war began.

Another problem, however, is that the United States does not have any F-16s coming off the production line to readily supply Poland, which also faces a potential threat from Russia and needs aircraft to defend itself.

Any deal would require White House approval and support in the US Congress, and likely NATO support as well.

Congress would likely go along, after Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky urged lawmakers Saturday in a conference call to provide more arms.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on March 3, 2022. (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

But Poland was not necessarily on board with the idea.

“Poland won’t send its fighter jets to Ukraine as well as allow to use its airports. We significantly help in many other areas,” the Chancellery of the Prime Minister wrote in a tweet Sunday.

Kyiv has urged the West to boost military assistance to the besieged country, including warplanes, with Zelensky pleading for Eastern European neighbors to provide Russian-made planes that his pilots are trained to fly.

The Ukrainian leader addressed US lawmakers by video call Saturday, pleading for further funding and an embargo on Russian oil imports.

“The urgency of the United States and its allies to support freedom for the people of Ukraine has never been greater,” Senator Rob Portman said after he and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin spoke with Zelensky.

“We must eliminate every obstacle to providing every measure of support to Ukraine to include finding a way for the United States to compensate our Eastern European partners who wish to donate their Soviet-style aircraft to Ukraine. There is no time to lose,” Portman said in a statement.

Washington last week authorized $350 million of military equipment for Kyiv — the largest such package in US history.

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