Doomed plan to send Polish jets to Ukraine exposes rift in western alliance

Victoria Nuland, the senior US state department official, was on her way to testify before Congress on Tuesday when she heard that Poland had offered to give its Russian-made MiG fighter jets to the US to transport to Ukraine.

“I saw that announcement. . . as I was literally driving here, ”Nuland told the Senate foreign relations committee, adding that it was a total“ surprise ”.

The White House was also caught off guard when Poland published the offer on a government website. One person familiar with the situation said the US ambassador to Warsaw had not even been informed by the Poles.

The release of the offer without consultations with Washington exposed the first real fissure in the united approach that the US and its Nato allies had shown over the war in Ukraine.

Hours later, John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the plan was not “tenable”. He said the idea of ​​Poland sending MiGs to Ramstein, a US-Nato air base in Germany, from where they would “fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire Nato alliance”.

The Polish offer was the latest twist in a saga that played out in public and private as the US, Poland and Nato debated the transfer of the MiG aircraft to Ukraine. It was a new variation of a convoluted swap idea that would have involved the US sending F-16 fighter jets to Poland to replenish its air force.

Nine days before, Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, had thrust the broader issue into the public eye by saying some EU members planned to supply fighter jets to Ukraine following a request from Kyiv. His comment put pressure on other western leaders to respond to an idea that the US and its allies were not planning to make public at that time.

Several days after Borrell had spoken, Polish president Andrzej Duda said Warsaw would not send MiGs to Ukraine because it would be “military interference in the conflict”.

But several US and Polish sources familiar with the situation said his comment came after Washington rejected a Polish proposal that would have involved Poland directly sending MiGs to Ukraine and receiving F-16s in return. One senior Polish official said Warsaw received a “sceptical” response to its original proposal.

The US did not oppose Poland transferring its MiGs to Ukraine. But the Pentagon concluded that supplying F-16s would be both difficult logistically and, more importantly, risked dragging America into a war with Russia.

One person familiar with the debate said the Pentagon had opposed the F-16 idea from the beginning. Some US officials were concerned that Poland was mainly suggesting the swap as a way to upgrade its air force.

Several other people said the state department supported the first idea while the White House National Security Council was divided.

The idea appeared to have evaporated until it re-emerged on March 5 when Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to almost 300 US lawmakers on a Zoom call, and made a passionate plea for fighter jets. He said Poland was prepared to send MiGs to Ukraine in exchange for F-16s.

Hours later, the White House told the Financial Times it was in talks with Poland over the issue. The following day, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, said during a visit to Ukraine that the proposal had the “green light”. Warsaw reacted angrily because they had not been told about the US shift.

“The problem was that we had been told ‘No’. And then suddenly they go to the media and say there is a green light and at the same time there was no communication with us, ”said the senior Polish official.

One person familiar with the diplomatic back and forth said the US did not mean to blindside Poland. He said it was unclear if Poland was still interested – as Zelensky had suggested – and wanted to give Warsaw space to manoeuvre. But he said he understood why Poland was upset at the way the US had handled the situation.

Several people familiar with the diplomatic kerfuffle said Warsaw had made the surprise offer to hand its MiGs to the US because it wanted to scotch suggestions that it was simply seeking to upgrade its air force. It was also frustrated at what it perceived as an attempt to strong-arm it into taking risks that could prompt retaliation from Russia without the full support of the Nato alliance.

“It simply came to our notice then. . . and portraying us to Ukraine as reluctant, whereas actually they were discouraging us, ”the Polish official said. “The government got infuriated and replied in kind. The US should not be trying to shift the blame on us. We’re doing a lot for Ukraine, so we shouldn’t be exposed like this. ”

Dan Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland, said the Poles interpreted Blinken’s comment about the “green light” in the wake of the Zelensky call with Congress as the US shifting the onus on to them.

“They got pissed,” Fried explained. “They decided to put the onus back on the US (with the Ramstein proposal).”

“Borrell messed up, the US messed up, the Poles messed up, but nobody was acting in bad faith,” said Fried, who is now at the Atlantic Council. “It was an operational clusterfuck, but not a strategic abandonment of Ukraine.”

Michal Baranowski, a US-Poland expert at the German Marshall Fund think-tank, said the spat was unlikely to derail Polish-US relations in the long term.

“If the Americans came across as pushy and twisting Poland’s arm, then the Poles came across as unpredictable to the Americans,” he said. “This is a scratch on this very shiny new Polish-US relationship, but I don’t necessarily think that it is going to be a very long or persistent scratch.”

US officials have since stressed that they value Poland’s contribution in the effort to help Ukraine. Kamala Harris, vice-president, also visited Poland last week in an effort to show support for nations on Nato’s eastern flank.

“In close relationships you sometimes need a quarrel. We are usually very polite to our American allies, but sometimes they also need to understand that we need to be treated as partners, ”said the senior Polish official, adding that recent high-level conversations suggested that both sides had moved on. “There are more important issues.”

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