WARSAW — Poland’s president said on Thursday that his country would transfer four Soviet-designed MIG fighters to Ukraine “literally in the next few days,” potentially pushing Western military aid to the embattled country over a significant threshold.
The warplanes would be the first sent to Ukraine by a NATO country since Russia invaded last year.
The pledge from Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, fell short of Ukrainian requests for more advanced F-16 fighter planes from the United States but was nonetheless welcomed by the chief of staff to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine as “great news coming soon.”
Still, some uncertainty remained.
Poland first pledged such fighters a year ago, in the weeks after Russia invaded — but has so far sent none. Polish officials had previously indicated that they would send warplanes to Ukraine only as part of a coalition with other countries.
On Thursday, it was not immediately clear which other countries with MIG jets were ready to join or whether Poland was going it alone. And there was some skepticism over whether Warsaw would be able to move as quickly as it hoped to.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, right, meeting with the new president of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, on Thursday.Credit…Wojtek Radwanski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Speaking on Thursday on Polish Radio, a state-owned broadcaster, Poland’s defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, said “we really want to hand over MIGs in a broader coalition” with neighboring Slovakia and perhaps other countries. He did not specify whether this was a precondition or just a hope.
Some viewed Mr. Duda’s MIG announcement as a replay of the Polish campaign in recent months to pressure other countries, notably Germany, into giving Ukraine German-made Leopard 2 tanks.
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That effort worked. Germany, after months of hesitation, agreed in January to provide the advanced battle tanks to Ukraine and gave permission to other countries to do the same. And as part of the arrangement, Washington agreed to provide Ukraine with its powerful M1 Abrams tanks.
But some of Ukraine’s allies have appeared far more reluctant when it comes to warplanes, and on Thursday, it appeared that the United States was not altering its stance.
“It doesn’t change our calculus with respect to F-16s,” said a White House spokesman, John F. Kirby. “It’s not on the table right now. And an announcement by another nation to provide fighter aircraft does not affect, and does not change, our own sovereign decision-making.”
The debate over fighter jets came as Russian and Ukrainian troops in the eastern part of the country remained enmeshed in battle reminiscent of World War I, especially around Bakhmut, where both sides have sustained heavy losses.
Ukrainian military officials professed confidence in their ability to hold on to the devastated city even as military analysts and Western officials warned that the battle was unsustainable and — of far more consequence — might jeopardize Kyiv’s planned springtime counteroffensive.
Col. Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military eastern command, said that fierce fighting continued in Bakhmut on Thursday and that Ukrainian forces were still holding back a Russian advance. “They exhaust, bleed the enemy, knock out his combat power in terms of personnel and equipment,” he said.
Civilians in Siversk, a city north of Bakhmut, on Thursday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
But to do so, Ukraine’s military is firing thousands of artillery shells a day and sustaining heavy casualties. The bombardment has been so intense that the Pentagon raised concerns with Kyiv recently after several days of nonstop artillery firing, two U.S. officials said.
With the stocks of artillery shells dwindling, Ukraine’s allies have hastened to increase production. European members of the NATO alliance, with the exception of Hungary, have all voiced strong support for Ukraine and, in many cases, sent it weapons.
Fighter jets have proved more contentious, but with both Ukraine and Russia gearing up for expected spring offensives, the momentum in the debate is shifting, if mostly in Europe’s once-communist eastern fringe, where hostility to Russia is particularly acute. Some there favor providing at least older aircraft.
The Biden administration has resisted sending American fighter jets to Ukraine, in part because it would take too long to train pilots to help in the grueling military operations. It might also prove risky, given Russia’s air superiority.
The Polish president announced the delivery of MIGs to Ukraine after a meeting in Warsaw on Thursday with the new president of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, a retired general and former chairman of NATO’s Military Committee. Mr. Duda said four MIGs would be delivered rapidly, followed “gradually” by more than a dozen others from Polish stocks once they are repaired and ready.
Poland has around 28 MIG-29s, most of which it received from Germany after it absorbed East Germany and disbanded the Soviet-equipped air force there. Not all are in working order.
Poland got its MIGs after Germany unified with East Germany and dissolved its Soviet-era air force.Credit…Radoslaw Jozwiak/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Duda said Poland’s Air Force would replace the jets with FA-50s from South Korea, the first of which are expected to be delivered later this year, and F-35s ordered from the United States.
He made no mention of their delivery to Ukraine being dependent on the formation of a coalition with others.
The Polish president was speaking a day after a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which is made up of all 30 NATO members and more than 20 other nations committed to helping Ukraine defend itself. The meeting ended with no consensus on warplanes.
Slovakia, which borders both Ukraine and Poland, has said it is ready to send some of its own stock of Soviet-era warplanes, but the coalition government that made that commitment collapsed in December. A caretaker administration is now in place, and its right to make important security and foreign policy decisions has been contested.
Poland, which shares a 330-mile border with Ukraine, is sheltering more than 1.5 million war refugees and is the main transit route for Western arms flowing into Ukraine. It has long lobbied its allies within NATO to send more and better weapons to help Ukrainian forces fight against Russia.
Robust support for Ukraine by Polish officials also plays well politically at home, where parliamentary elections are taking place later this year, and the conservative governing party, Law and Justice, faces a tough challenge.
Solidarity with Ukraine is one of the few issues that cut across party lines, uniting nationalists, mainstream conservatives and liberals, who are bitterly opposed to Law and Justice on issues like abortion, and it could help Law and Justice at the polls. Only fringe far-right groups — hostile to all migrants and refugees, including Ukrainians — oppose helping Ukraine.
But Poland has sometimes run ahead of itself in its eagerness to aid Ukraine.
Last March, it said it was ready to send its fleet of MIG-29s to Ukraine on the condition that the United States replace them with more modern American-made jets.
But the plan fell apart after Poland abruptly announced that instead of sending the planes directly to Ukraine, it would send them to a U.S. air base in Germany for transfer. Blindsided by a plan it had not been consulted about, Washington dismissed the idea — and none of the planes left Poland.
Andrew Higgins reported from Warsaw, and Lara Jakes from Rome. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt and Marc Santora.