Poland offers to transfer all of its MiG-29 fighters to US control

Poland is prepared to put all its MiG-29 fighter jets at the disposal of the US, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday, amid a high-stakes debate over how to support Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion of its territory.

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has appealed to Nato states in possession of old Russian-made warplanes — which Ukrainian pilots know how to fly — to give them to Ukraine, and urged the US to then replenish those air forces by providing them with F-16 fighter jets in exchange.

US officials have discussed such a deal with Poland, but Polish officials have repeatedly expressed reservations on supplying offensive weapons without the full backing of Nato, and on any steps that could draw the alliance into a full-on war with Russia.

On Tuesday evening, however, Poland’s foreign ministry said that Warsaw was prepared to send its MiG-29 jets to Ramstein air base in Germany “immediately and free of charge” and put them at the disposal of the US.

“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 foreign ministry stated.

“The Polish government also requests other Nato Allies — owners of MiG-29 jets — to act in the same vein.”

A senior Polish official said that its proposal was designed to show that Poland was committed to supporting Ukraine, while also — assuming other countries followed suit — making it unclear which countries had supplied the warplanes to Ukraine.

The move was also, the official said, meant to counteract a insinuations that Poland was holding up the delivery of the MiG-29s to Ukraine.

The White House did not comment. But Victoria Nuland, the number three state department official, said she did not believe that Poland had told Washington in advance about the idea to have the US take possession of the MiG fighter jets.

“To my knowledge, it wasn’t pre-consulted with us that they planned to give these planes to us,” Nuland was cited by Reuters as telling the Senate foreign relations committee. “I look forward when this hearing is over to getting back to my desk and seeing how we will respond to this proposal of theirs to give the planes to us.”

According to another US official, Poland originally proposed the idea of a plane-swap to Washington, as a way to enhance its own air force by replacing MiG fighter jets with F-16s, in a move that would also allow Ukraine to bolster its air defences against Russian attacks.

While there were differing views inside the US government, with some at the state department in support, the Biden administration initially told Poland that it was opposed to the idea, according to someone familiar with the debate.

Officials who opposed the idea said it ran the risk of drawing the US into conflict with Russia. They argued that a swap involving the US providing F-16s to Poland, with the latter giving MiGs to Ukraine, could be seen in Moscow as a much more aggressive step than giving Ukraine anti-tank Javelin missiles and anti-aircraft Stinger missiles.

But the White House quickly pivoted on Sunday after Zelensky made an impassioned plea in a Zoom call with almost 300 Democrats and Republicans in Congress, which was first reported by the Financial Times.

Several hours after the administration had suggested that Washington had strong reservations on the proposal, the White House told the FT that it was in negotiations with Poland on the proposal.

“The clock is ticking and Russia is attacking Ukraine’s airfields. President [Joe] Biden needs to get this MiG transfer done and he needs to get it done today. Ukraine doesn’t have time for paperwork,” said Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican senator. “Load these MiGs up and get them to Ukrainian pilots who can still make a difference.”