U.S., Poland Look at Providing Soviet-Era Aircraft to Ukraine

The US is exploring a deal in which Poland would send Soviet-era aircraft to Ukraine in return for American F-16 jet fighters, US officials said Saturday, in the latest bid to help Ukraine respond to Russia’s invasion.

The deal would require White House approval and congressional action, US officials said.

The disclosure of a possible deal followed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s impassioned plea to Capitol Hill for assistance in obtaining more lethal military aid, especially Russian-made jet fighters that Ukrainian pilots can fly. Mr. Zelensky also supported a proposal to ban US imports of Russian oil, in a video call Saturday morning with members of Congress.

There were more than 200 House and Senate members on the call, said people who participated. Mr. Zelensky spoke for about 25 minutes before taking questions.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) asked Mr. Zelensky what one thing he needed most, according to two people on the call. The Ukrainian president replied with the need for jet fighters. He also brought up instituting a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but said, through a translator, “if you can’t do that, at least get me plans,” according to a person on the call.

Ukrainian service members unpacking Javelin antitank missiles last month.


Photos:

VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS

Eastern European allies are in possession of Russian military jets that could potentially be transferred to Ukraine. Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said that the US should help make possible the transfer of the aircraft. “We must eliminate every obstacle to providing every measure of support to Ukraine to include finding a way for the United States to compensate our Eastern European partners who wish to donate their Soviet-style aircraft to Ukraine,” he said in a statement.

Another lawmaker said in an interview that Congress could direct funds in a pending spending bill to replenish the stockpiles of European allies.

Mr. Zelensky said that the jets were more important than the Stinger antiaircraft missiles that the US has greenlighted.

A US defense official said other allied nations are seeking to provide Ukraine with Russian aircraft. The US military would backfill with American aircraft

“We are not standing in the way,” the official said.

It isn’t known how many Soviet-era aircraft Poland has available. The Polish Air Force already has a fleet of at least a few dozen F-16s, based on a sales disclosure.

US officials said there are a number of “challenging practical questions,” including getting the plans to Ukraine. Whether to provide Soviet-era plans, they said, is a “sovereign decision” for Poland and the details of an arrangement would need to be agreed upon with Warsaw.

“We are working with the Poles on this issue and consulting with the rest of our NATO allies,” a White House official said.

On Sunday, Poland’s prime minister’s office dismissed reports of a potential arrangement.

“Poland won’t send its fighter jets to #Ukraine as well as allow to use its airports,” the chancellery of Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted. “We significantly help in many other areas.”

However, two Polish officials close to the issue said Poland would at least consider the proposal Washington was willing to put together.

On Tuesday, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said sending jets to Ukraine would risk a war between the US-led military alliance and Russia.

“We are not sending any jets to Ukraine because that would open a military interference in the Ukrainian conflict,” he said at a NATO press conference. “We are not joining this conflict. NATO is not a party to this conflict. We are supporting Ukraine with humanitarian aid, however we are not sending any jets to the Ukrainian airspace,” Mr. Duda said.

It wasn’t clear if he meant flying Polish-flagged fighter jets, with Polish pilots, into Ukraine, or donating plans that Ukrainians would then own and fly. But that same day, Mr. Morawiecki said Poland had no plans to give Ukraine its jets.

Former members of the Soviet bloc inherited weapons, ammunition and other equipment after the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukraine’s military largely consists of Soviet-era weapons.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asked about Ukraine’s request for aircraft, said, “We are talking about and working on everything.”

The request, coming as Congress is finalizing fiscal 2022 spending legislation that is expected to be the vehicle for new US aid to Ukraine, could complicate those negotiations. With the House aiming to pass that legislation before a Wednesday Democratic retreat and the law funding the government expiring Friday, negotiators must decide whether to specify that $10 billion in additional assistance include provisions to spur the delivery of plans to Ukraine.

“President Zelensky made a desperate plea for Eastern European countries to provide Russian-made plans to Ukraine,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., NY) said in a statement after the call. “These plans are very much needed. And I will do all I can to help the administration to facilitate their transfer.”

One underlying tension is whether arranging the transfer of the jets to Ukraine would amount to a more direct involvement in the conflict. Some lawmakers say it wouldn’t. The plea for the plans, as well as drones, has prompted lawmakers from both parties to urge the Biden administration to do more to facilitate the transfer of the Russian jets.

President Biden has said the US military wouldn’t enter Ukraine. And since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, no US aircraft have flown over Ukraine, the Pentagon said. The Biden administration said it would send as much as $350 million in additional military aid, including “lethal defensive assistance.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., SC) said that plans “the Ukrainians could fly without additional training are sitting waiting to be delivered, but there’s objections and apparently we’re part of the problem.”

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Chernobyl

Not in operation

controlled by

separatists

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Primary refugee crossing locations

Chernobyl

Not in operation

controlled by

separatists

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Chernobyl

Not in operation

controlled by

separatists

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

The US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization members have resisted entering the conflict directly. Mr. Zelensky has pushed for a no-fly zone over his country but Mr. Biden and allied leaders have rejected the move as escalatory. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, said Friday the organization is a defensive alliance that doesn’t seek conflict with Russia.

One Senate aid said that Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) plans to send a letter to the Pentagon asking it to ship US jet fighters to Eastern European countries that donate the Russian-made jet fighters to Ukraine.

Mr. Zelensky spoke through a translator on the call, using simultaneous translation, so there was little back-and-forth.

At one point, Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) jumped in and asked about banning Russian oil imports, according to two people. Mr. Zelensky agreed the US should stop such purchases.

Mr. Manchin, who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced a bipartisan bill Thursday that would ban domestic imports of Russian crude oil, petroleum and other energy products, in a step aimed at choking a source of revenue for Russian President Vladimir Putin during his invasion of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian president was steady and calm and emphatic at times about what he wanted from the US Lawmakers tuned in from airports, homes and cars, according to a person on the call.

“It was very clear that he’d thought through what he needed,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D., Conn.), who added that Mr. Zelensky looked sharp. “He looked better than I look on a Friday evening of a standard week.”

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com, Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com and Lindsay Wise at lindsay.wise@wsj.com

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