US works with Poland to supply Ukraine with fighter jets

The United States is working with Warsaw to help supply Ukraine with Polish fighter jets under a deal in which the Pentagon would give Poland F-16s in exchange, as pressure mounts for the West is increasing its military support in the war with Russia.

The White House said it was negotiating with Poland on a deal and consulting with other NATO allies. But he said there were “a number of difficult practical questions, including how the planes could actually be transferred from Poland to Ukraine”.

“We are also working on what capabilities we could provide to replace Poland if it decides to transfer planes to Ukraine,” a White House spokesperson said.

The Financial Times reported earlier on Saturday that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an emotional appeal to the United States to give Poland and other Eastern European allies F- 16 which would then allow these countries to send their Russian-made warplanes to Ukraine.

In a call with nearly 300 U.S. lawmakers on Saturday morning, Zelensky said Ukraine badly needs more planes, especially after NATO decided against creating a no-fly zone because it would risk a wider conflict with Russia, according to people familiar with the call.

Zelensky asked the United States to provide Poland and three other NATO countries with American planes that would allow them to send Russian-made planes to Ukraine, the sources said. Ukrainian pilots need Russian-made planes because those are the systems they were trained for.

Washington is working to provide more support to Ukraine and this week began sending anti-aircraft missiles – the same weapon the United States supplied to the mujahideen to repel the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. But Ukraine has stressed that it needs planes to push Russia back into the air.

A US lawmaker who took part in the call said Zelensky had expressed appreciation for the stingers, but said they were insufficient because they were unable to fly high enough to take out some of the Russian planes.

While the United States and its allies have supplied a range of weapons to Ukraine, they fear that Vladimir Putin sees the supply of warplanes as a big escalation which he could interpret as the effective entry of NATO in the conflict against Russia.

Ukraine said some Eastern European countries had agreed to provide fighter jets, but the requests were turned down. Polish President Andrzej Duda said sending planes would amount to interfering in the conflict.

A senior US defense official said earlier the Pentagon was not “actively” considering the idea, but a person familiar with the changing nature of the situation said the White House appeared to be reconsidering.

The White House denied reports that the United States had previously opposed the idea, saying it was “a sovereign decision for any country to make”.

Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman from Philadelphia who participated in the zoom call, told the Financial Times there was broad bipartisan support in Congress to find creative solutions. He cited the example of the United States which passed the Lend-Lease Act during World War II to facilitate the supply of war supplies and weapons to countries.

“We need to start looking at analogies to the Lend-Lease Act in terms of the 2022 version for Ukraine,” Boyle said. “There is broad bipartisan support in Congress and also popular American support for doing everything we can to arm the Ukrainians. Politically speaking, it’s a relatively easy lift.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, said Zelensky had made a “desperate plea” for Eastern European countries to supply Russian-made planes.

Zelensky reminded the group that a no-fly zone was his top priority but that he wanted more planes if that was not possible.

Ben Sasse, a Republican senator, said a no-fly zone would mean sending American pilots into battle against Russia in a “battle between nuclear powers that could quickly spiral out of control.” But he said Washington should provide Ukraine with planes, helicopters and drones.

“Let’s resupply the Ukrainian Air Force today and keep the ghosts of Kyiv in the sky,” Sasse said, referring to unconfirmed stories of a Ukrainian pilot who shot down several Russian planes.

A senior US defense official said Friday that the Pentagon has provided Ukraine with $240 million in military aid of the $350 million recently approved by President Joe Biden. She said the remaining $110 million would likely arrive in Ukraine within the next week and the administration was working with Congress to secure more funds.

A lawmaker who participated in the call said there was a unified sense that Zelensky was a “global hero”.

Zelensky opened the call with a 20-minute plea for more American support. But at one point in his moving presentation, he stopped to ask one of the US lawmakers to mute.

“Senator Rick Scott, please mute your microphone,” the Ukrainian leader said in his usual t-shirt, according to a person on the call.

Additional reporting by James Shotter

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