Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the Polish minister of defense on Wednesday that the U.S. is not interested in participating in its plan to transfer its fight jets to the U.S., who would them give them to Ukraine.
The Polish government announced Tuesday that it was prepared to immediately transfer its MiG-29s to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The Pentagon responded that the proposal did not appear tenable, and after Austin’s call, DoD announced it would not play a role in such a transfer.
“Secretary Austin thanked the minister for Poland’s willingness to continue to look for ways to assist Ukraine, but he stressed that we do not support the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian air force at this time, and therefore have no desire to see them in our custody, either,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
The U.S. intelligence community’s opinion figured into the decision, Kirby said.
While the U.S. and others have sent military aid to Ukraine, fighter jets “may be mistaken as escalatory,” Kirby said. “That could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO.”
From the Pentagon’s point of view, anti-air and anti-armor missiles are doing a good job of slowing Russia’s assault on Ukraine.
“We believe the best way to support Ukrainian defense is by providing them the weapons and the systems that they need most to defeat Russian aggression, in particular, anti-armor … and we know that they are being used with great effect.”
Further, Kirby added, it’s the Pentagon’s assessment that given Russia’s widespread anti-aircraft capabilities, adding fighter jets to Ukraine’s inventory will have little payoff for the high risk involved.
With his country under increasing aerial bombardment, including an airstrike on a maternity hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued yet another plea to politicians around the world, including House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat.
“The partners are fully informed about what is happening in our Mariupol. And about the situation in all other regions of Ukraine, where hostilities continue,” he said in a message contained in the daily “War Bulletin” produced by the Ukrainian embassy in Washington D.C. this evening and shared with Military Times. “We are working to make Russia feel the consequences of its actions. We are doing everything to finally secure our sky.”
But, Zelenskyy said, despite what the Pentagon said, his country needs the jets.
“Together we must return courage to some Western leaders,” he said. “So that they finally do what they had to do on the first day of the invasion. Either close the Ukrainian sky from Russian missiles and bombs, or give us fighter jets so that we can do everything ourselves. A pause without a decision has become simply deadly.”
Whether Poland wants to provide aid directly to Ukraine is a separate issue, Kirby added, as they’re free to provide security assistance on their terms.
“What I’m talking about today is this particular proposal about the MiG-29s … we believed it was important to lay flat our concerns about that and that’s what we’ve done here,” Kirby said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.
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