On Tuesday, Poland announced plans to send 28 Russian-made MiG jets to a U.S. and NATO base in Germany, aircraft that then could be transferred to Ukraine. That announcement from the Polish government followed a week of back-and-forth negotiation between Warsaw and Washington, though Tuesday’s announcement came as a surprise to U.S. officials.
But the U.S. Department of Defense opposed the transfer of Polish planes to Ukraine, a senior administration official told POLITICO, and Kirby cited both logistical and military complications of such a hand-off.
Kirby noted that the most effective weapons at this stage in the war for Ukraine are anti-armor and ground-based air defense, and that adding aircraft to the Ukrainian inventory was “not likely to significantly change” the Ukrainian air force’s ability to counter Russian attacks.
Any action by the U.S. or its NATO allies to provide jets to Ukraine, Kirby noted, could be seen by President Vladimir Putin of Russia as an act of aggression and lead to an escalation of his country’s attack.
Kirby’s comments differed from those of Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier in the day, who expressed opposition to Poland’s proposition but implied that providing fighter jets “in the right way” might still be on the table.
“Poland’s proposal shows that there are some complexities that the issue presents when it comes to providing security assistance,” Blinken said in a news conference at the State Department. “We have to make sure that we’re doing it in the right way.”
In particular, Blinken expressed concern about the prospect of U.S. pilots departing from a NATO-controlled base in Germany into Russian-contested airspace over Ukraine. Such an arrangement might drag the U.S. and NATO into open conflict with Russia.
“It’s not simply clear to us that there’s a substantive rationale for doing it in the way that was put forward yesterday,” Blinken said. “So what we’re doing right now is continuing to consult very closely with Poland with other NATO allies on this and the logistical challenges that it presents.”
Blinken on Wednesday also dismissed calls for a NATO-enforced partial no-fly zone over Ukraine, an idea that has gained steam among foreign policy elites in the U.S. Blinken stated that such enforcement — which would include introducing American pilots into Ukrainian airspace — “would almost certainly lead to direct conflict” between U.S. forces and Russia.
“That would expand the conflict. It would prolong it. It would make it much more deadly than it already is,” Blinken said. “And that would be neither in the interest of our countries, nor in the interest of Ukraine.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has repeatedly asked NATO member countries to implement a no-fly zone and to provide fighter jets, including in a Zoom call with U.S. lawmakers on Saturday.
On Wednesday, Zelenskyy called for a resolution to be reached “immediately” between Poland and the U.S., noting that Ukrainians “do not have time” for indecision.
“This is not ping pong! This is about human lives!” Zelenskyy said in a speech. “We ask once again: solve it faster. Do not shift the responsibility, send us planes.”
Vice President Kamala Harris departed on Wednesday morning for a previously planned trip to Warsaw, where she will meet with Polish leaders and discuss the ongoing situation in Ukraine.
“If I were in President Zelenskyy’s position,” Blinken said, “I’m sure I would be asking for everything possible, in his mind, to help the Ukrainian people.”