US rules out 'high risk' fighter jet transfer for Ukraine

The Pentagon on Wednesday laid out a litany of reasons the United States does not support the transfer of aging Polish fighter jets to Ukraine, calling it a “high risk” plan that would likely heighten tensions with Russia.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a Wednesday morning conversation with his Polish counterpart, said the U.S. government does not support the transfer of MiG-29 aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force “at this time,” press secretary John Kirby told reporters. 

The United States does want Poland to directly transfer the aircraft to Ukraine, nor does it want Warsaw to first give the MiG-29s to Washington to then give those to Kyiv, as publicly suggested by the Polish government on Tuesday. 

“The intelligence community has assessed that the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO,” Kirby said.  

“Therefore, we also assess the transfer of the MiG-29s to Ukraine to be high-risk.” 

NATO ally Poland caught Washington off guard with the announcement it would transfer its fleet of MiG-29s to the U.S. military’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a move that would allow Washington to then move the jets to Ukraine. Kyiv has begged Western officials for the Russian-made combat aircraft, which its pilots are trained to fly.  

But the Pentagon swiftly met the announcement with one of its own on Tuesday, calling the plan “untenable,” due to the geopolitical battlefield that is moving jets from a U.S.-NATO base to a non-alliance country to help in its fight against Russia. The Kremlin warned this week that such a move could be seen as NATO inserting itself into the conflict.   

The United States has already quickly moved to send Ukraine hundreds of millions of dollars in lethal aid — including a $350 million package approved late last month — but Wednesday's announcement appeared to draw a line at transferring combat aircraft. 

Kirby said the U.S. is “not drawing a red-line here,” but would not detail “the sausage making of how this particular decision got made.” 

The U.S. believes the best way to support Ukraine is “by providing the weapons and the systems that they need most to defeat Russian aggression, in particular anti-armor and air defense,” Kirby said. 

He also asserted that the Ukrainian Air Force already has several squadrons of mission-capable aircraft and adding to the inventory “is not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capabilities.” 

In addition to ruling out combat aircraft transfers, at least for now, Washington has repeatedly stressed it would not send U.S. troops into Ukraine to fight or to patrol the skies.  

The United States also does not support a no-fly zone over Ukraine over fears it could set off another world war with nuclear-capable Russia.

Austin will travel to Brussels next week to meet with his NATO counterparts, where the Ukraine-Russia conflict will likely dominate talks, Kirby said. 

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