The Department of Defense on Wednesday explained its reasoning for rejecting Poland’s recent offer to transfer MiG-29 fighter jets into U.S. custody for delivery to Ukraine, describing the proposal as “high risk.”
“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,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing. Kirby said the risk of provoking direct conflict with Russia was just one of the reasons for the Pentagon’s decision, adding that the department has also assessed that the Ukrainian air force has little to gain in its fight against Russia from the transfer of MiG-29s, compared to other types of weapons, such as anti-armor and air defense systems.
The Polish government on Tuesday announced what U.S. officials have described as a surprise plan to send 28 of its fighter jets to a U.S. Air Force base in Germany so that they could then be transferred to Ukraine. As Ukraine’s neighbor to the west, Poland is concerned about the potential for Russia to invade other parts of Eastern Europe. By sending its fighter jets to the U.S., instead of directly to Ukraine, it seemed that Poland was looking to help Ukraine’s defense against Russia without placing itself directly in the middle of the conflict. Russia’s defense ministry has warned that other countries that provide airfields for Ukraine to launch attacks on Russia could be perceived as having entered the conflict.
Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested the U.S. would support a plan by Poland to send fighter jets to Ukraine, but the proposal to do so by first transferring the aircraft into U.S. custody was quickly nixed.
“We need to be careful about every decision we make so that we aren’t making the potential for escalation worse,” Kirby said Wednesday. He argued that any escalation of Russia’s aggression would not only be bad for the U.S. and NATO, “but it’s certainly not going to be good for the Ukrainian people to have what’s already a destructive and terrible war get even more destructive and terrible.”
The comments came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated the call for a no-fly zone over his country Wednesday after a Russian airstrike hit a children’s hospital in the city of Mariupol. He tweeted a video he said showed the aftermath along with the caption, “People, children are under the wreckage. Atrocity! How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror?
“Close the sky right now! Stop the killings!” Zelensky added. “You have power but you seem to be losing humanity.”
Zelensky has been calling for a no-fly zone, which would require the shooting down of Russian aircraft flying over Ukraine, since Russia began its invasion two weeks ago. But top officials in the United States and Europe have said actually enforcing it would mark an escalation and lead to a broader war.
“If I were in President Zelensky’s position, I’m sure I would be asking for everything possible in his mind to help the Ukrainian people,” Blinken said when asked about the hospital strike and Zelensky’s request on Wednesday, adding, “We also have to see to it that this war does not expand.
“Introducing, in our case, American service members in Ukraine, on Ukrainian territory or soil, or American pilots into Ukrainian airspace, whether on a full or on a limited basis, would almost certainly lead to direct conflict between the United States — between NATO — and Russia, and that would expand the conflict,” Blinken continued. “It would prolong it. It would make it much more deadlier than it already is.”
According to the United Nations, Russia’s invasion has already resulted in more than 2 million refugees and hundreds of civilian deaths. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday it was a “painful” decision to decline Zelensky’s request but that “we need to make sure that this conflict ends. We have to avoid that it expands, escalates. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. Providing support, but also acting in ways which doesn’t trigger escalation of the conflict you now see in Ukraine.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she spoke with Zelensky on Wednesday and the tenor of the request had shifted to asking the U.S. to help provide planes for Ukraine to implement its own no-fly zone.
“They know that we can’t go there. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is trying to bait the trap so that we go in, and that could be the beginning of World War III,” Pelosi said. “They know we can’t go in but it’s the ask. This morning he was more ‘If we can’t have a no-fly zone, let us have our own and we need the airplanes to come in.’
“What that is is there are planes that the Ukraine pilots are trained on, and these are some of the planes that are in Poland,” Pelosi continued. “Poland said they would do it if America said yes. America said yes, now [Poland] wants to backfill. … This morning [Zelensky] was less on the ask of the policy, more on the ‘Let us do it, help us get the planes.’”