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The West doesn’t really say “never” about fighter jets for Ukraine – it just wants to focus first on getting weapons from Kyiv for an imminent offensive.
This is the sentiment emerging in the wake of US President Joe Biden’s emphatic ‘no’ – echoed to varying degrees by German and British leaders – to the question of whether he would send the fighter jets to Ukraine. ‘she asks. While officials have remained publicly relatively unequivocal that no planes are forthcoming, private discussions indicate it may just be a matter of time.
At the Pentagon, senior US officials acknowledge that Ukraine will need to upgrade its aging air force with new fighter jets – eventually. But for now, officials are focused on getting the weapons Kyiv needs for the immediate fight.
The same conversations are taking place in Europe. Countries such as Poland, the Netherlands and France have shown themselves open to the idea, but officials stress that there is considerable work to be done just for Ukraine to obtain the taboo-breaking weapons promised these last weeks.
“I think it’s a matter of longer-term perspective,” said a senior Eastern European diplomat. “We need to deliver what was promised in January as soon as possible. It’s really impressive, but time is running out.
The chatter indicates that while the tenor is negative at the moment, the issue is likely to linger behind the scenes and eventually reappear.
It’s a pattern that has happened time and time again for the Western alliance since the start of the war: something that was once forbidden – from German weapons in a war zone to Ukraine receiving modern tanks – cuts its way to reality as the war continues, the West’s engagement deepens, and equipment requiring extensive training no longer seems out of place.
“A lot of people still don’t understand that the war is far from over,” Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Melnyk told POLITICO. “In fact, Putin seems to have more of an appetite than ever. Without air support, you cannot fight modern warfare.
The world has changed
The possibility of sending fighter jets to Ukraine dates back to the first days of the war.
In the weeks after Russian troops were sent across the border, the Polish government said it was ready to transfer Soviet-era fighter jets to the United States so they could then be entrusted to Ukrainian pilots.
A stunned Washington rejected the offer. The training was too difficult, officials said, and sending planes from a NATO base in Ukraine could risk a direct confrontation with Russia. The subject faded away.
Almost a year later, a lot has changed. An initial blitz on Kyiv turned into trench warfare. A war that may last for days or weeks now could persist for years.
Along the way, the Western allies crossed one red line after another. Heavy weapons, howitzers, long-range rocket systems, armored vehicles – all ended up in Ukraine. And finally, at a watershed moment last month, the allies came together to pledge about 80 modern Western-made tanks.
Suddenly the idea of fighter jets didn’t seem so far-fetched. Ukraine seized the moment, renewing its request. The momentum seemed to be building. Then Biden and his European cohorts stepped in to slow things down.
Their caution reflected the behind-the-scenes arguments of Western diplomats, who said it was impossible to send jets to Kyiv and train pilots in time for an impending Russian offensive. And, they noted, the new planes aren’t crucial to these upcoming battles anyway.
Still, a military adviser to the Ukrainian government said the discussion on the jets was in its “early stages” and said he was confident the Western position would evolve in the coming weeks.
“In Germany,” recalls Melnyk, “I learned that it was useful to take people out of their comfort zone. Much of the population had no idea what weapon system the army even had in its arsenal. We helped educate them.
US officials, congressional aides and advisers involved admitted they were continuing to work on possible jet deliveries behind the scenes.
“They remember him saying ‘no’ to Patriot and Abrams for a while as well,” a US defense official said, recalling the evolution of Biden’s comments on air defense systems and tanks .
Refuel for months of jet talk
Indeed, jet chatter is far from dead.
Kyiv has focused its demands on so-called fourth-generation jets like the US-made F-16s, which have been in service since the 1980s. Ukrainian military officials estimate F-16 training could take six months; some US officials say it could even be as little as three to four months for seasoned Ukrainian pilots. The state-of-the-art F-35s, meanwhile, were never on the table.
Although the United States is unlikely to send its own fighter jets, which are in high demand for national security missions around the world, officials could consider letting other countries transfer their own F-16s. said a senior US Department of Defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. The United States must approve any transfer of F-16s due to export restrictions.
Some European countries with F-16s in their inventory, such as the Netherlands, have already shown they are ready to do just that. France is also transitioning to an air force of Rafale jets, meaning Paris will have older jets it could give to Ukraine – jets that wouldn’t need US approval. .
“There are other countries talking about it. So as they come forward with proposals for them to do it, I think we’ll have those conversations,” the senior DoD official said. I don’t think we’re in opposition on the fourth generation aircraft issue, I just think we need to make sure we keep prioritizing.”
At present, officials are more focused on sending in Ukrainian air defenses to protect Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, as well as armor and artillery for the planned spring offensive. Sending fighter jets to Kyiv “doesn’t solve the cruise missile problem, it doesn’t solve the drone problem,” the official said, adding that there had been no talks yet of high level on sending F-16s.
Behind the scenes, US administration officials are careful not to rule out jet deliveries. On Tuesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined multiple requests for clarification on the president’s comments. A Pentagon spokesperson said there were no new announcements.
“The biggest risk is prolonging the conflict,” former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told POLITICO on Wednesday. “That’s why we have an interest in ending the war quickly with weapons.”
Western allies, Rasmussen said, must ship everything Ukraine needs without delay.
“If we deliver all the weapons Ukraine needs, it can win,” he argued, pointing out that this even includes taking over Crimea, the region Russia annexed in 2014 and which many Western allies consider it a no-go zone at this time.
The next major moment on the calendar of defense ministers is February 14, when officials gather at NATO headquarters in Brussels for a meeting of the so-called Ramstein format – the grouping of allies to discuss deliveries of arms to Ukraine.
While the issue of the jets is likely to come up at the meeting, officials view the conversation on the jets as a “long-term” project, as a senior European defense official put it. Ukraine may raise the topic at the February meeting, the official said, “but the focus will still be on air defence, tanks, ammunition.”
Back in Paris, the atmosphere was nevertheless good on Tuesday when Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov met with French officials. Reznikov predicted that Ukraine might receive F-16s, Swedish-made Gripens “or something French.”
During recent tank talks, France acted early to send light tanks to Ukraine – a move it says set the stage for allies to later approve the heavy tank battalion that violates standards. Now France is sending cryptic signals that it could aim to play a similar role.
“I wonder what the message means,” said Pierre Haroche, a Paris-based international security lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. “If France wants to maintain its leadership, it must follow words with deeds.”
Lili Bayer and Matthew Karnitschnig contributed reporting.