Debate over Polish fighter jets for Ukraine has been divisive and distracting | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

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Will the MIG-29 fighter jets currently held by NATO member Poland be supplied to Ukraine? And if so, how would they be delivered? This issue has been hotly debated between Washington, Kiev, Brussels and Berlin this week.

Polish and American leaders discussed how a possible handover of power could be organised. All NATO members, meanwhile, have expressed serious concerns that the move could provoke Russian retaliation. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has ruled out the move, unlike his Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock.

These fast and agile MIG aircraft were first developed by the Soviet-era Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau in the 1970s as air superiority fighters. Later iterations, such as the MIG-29, can also be deployed as bombers. Only three NATO member states still use these devices: Bulgaria, Slovakia and Poland. While the first two have 16 and 12 MIG-29s, Poland has between 26 and 33. The majority of them were purchased by Poland from Germany in 2003 for the symbolic price of one euro each. The fighter jets previously belonged to the East German Air Force. Romania, which had 20 MIG-29 jets, retired them many years ago.

Ukrainian MiG-29 jets during an exercise in August 2016

Although many MIG-29s still exist, they are not necessarily combat-ready. Aging Soviet-era jets usually require significant maintenance. While Poland has the capacity to repair its fleet, Bulgaria and Slovakia have relied on Russia to repair their fighters. For this reason, only four to six of the Bulgarian MIG-29s are currently operational. Prime Minister Kiril Petkov therefore rejected calls in early March for his country to transfer jets to Ukraine. Spanish NATO fighters, now based at Bulgaria’s Graf Ignatievo airbase, have been guarding the country’s airspace since mid-February.

No Game Changer

DW has learned from Bulgarian government sources that the country’s refusal to supply Ukraine with MIG-29s stems from disagreements within the governing alliance. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, which traditionally maintains a pro-Russian position, has threatened to leave the four-party coalition if Bulgaria arms Ukraine. “Given these political factors, I expect [the handover of] Polish MIG [to be the likeliest outcome]”, military expert Gustav Gressel, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

What makes the MIG-29 such a powerful weapon in this war? “Ukraine could deploy them instantly, without its forces needing weeks of training,” says Carlo Masala, a defense analyst at the Bundeswehr University in Munich.

Tactical considerations also play a role. “Russia still hasn’t achieved air superiority in Ukraine and it will be cautious or refrain from sending its most vulnerable planes, mainly bombers, if there is a risk that they will encounter fighter jets. Ukrainians,” said Gustav Gressel. This, he says, reduces the risk of Russian bombings and gives Ukrainian cities a greater chance of survival.

Masala is skeptical. “The delivery of MIGs would not be a game-changer in this war – but it does represent a further escalation in Western engagement,” he says.

saber rattling, mind games

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would view the delivery of MIGs to Ukraine as direct interference in the conflict, implying that it would justify retaliation. This, in turn, could trigger NATO’s self-defense clause and lead to all-out war with Russia. The question of who could deliver fighter jets to Ukraine and how is therefore very tense. “A direct handover, either by Ukrainian pilots picking up the planes in Poland, or by Polish pilots flying them to Ukraine, would be very risky,” Masala says. “It would open up the territory to a warring party.” It is for this reason that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban banned the delivery of arms to Ukraine directly through Hungarian territory on March 7.

Gustave Gressel

Gustav Gressel says talking about jet delivery could be a ploy

Still, Gressel doubts that Russia will launch a retaliatory attack on Poland or another NATO state if tensions rise. “It amounts to saber rattling and mind games, there is no indication that Russia is planning an attack; Russia needs all of its forces in Ukraine,” Gressel said. “Hitting Poland or any other country would seriously complicate Russia’s military situation.”

Clandestine delivery

How, then, were the fighter jets able to reach Ukraine? “Carry them secretly [into the country] would be the wisest choice,” says Masala. The US military and intelligence services have considerable experience in conducting such operations. In the meantime, shipping the plane from Poland to the Ukrainian Black Sea coast is out of the question. It would take too long. the Russian Navy sealed off the Ukrainian coast and the only remaining port, Odessa.

Professor Carlos Masala

Carlo Masala says there has been too much talk about transferring fighters

Delivering the jets to land across the Carpathian Mountains presents a formidable challenge. “It’s almost impossible, partly because of the wingspan of jet planes,” says Gressel. He says the plane should be flown to Ukraine. He suggests one way to do this: “Give the plane a new paint job, then fly it by a Ukrainian or Polish pilot; all electronic systems would have to be disabled on a cloudy night, with the US Air Force accompanying them to the border to conceal the operation,” Gressel said.

Diversionary tactics?

Policymakers in the United States, Poland, Brussels and Germany have openly commented on and issued startlingly contradictory statements regarding the suggested jet transfer. “The potential delivery of MIGs has been discussed, there has been too much public debate and too little action,” says Carlo Masala. Over the past few days, prominent politicians have expressed a plethora of opinions on the suggested transfer, leaving some to wonder if the politicians have tried to cause a deliberate obfuscation.

“This war has been accompanied by massive psychological warfare, making it nearly impossible to discern fact from fiction and verify information,” says Masala. “All of these discussions could be a ploy to divert attention,” argues Gressel. It is certain that fighter jets will fly, or have flown, in Ukraine. As German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in a TV appearance last week: “Not all plans are officially announced.”

This article was originally written in German

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