Ukraine pushes for Western fighter jets after tank deals
In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, center, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy look at the site of the recent Russian shelling in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Susie Blann, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, January 31, 2023 2:51PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, January 31, 2023 2:51PM EST
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) - Ukraine won support Tuesday from Baltic nations and Poland in its quest to obtain Western fighter jets, but there were no signs that larger nations like the U.S. and Britain have changed their stance of refusing to provide warplanes to Kyiv after almost a year of battling Russia's invading forces.
“Ukraine needs fighter jets ... missiles, tanks. We need to act,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said in the Latvian capital of Riga at a news conference with his Baltic and Polish colleagues. Those countries, which lie on NATO's eastern flank, feel especially threatened by Russia and have been the leading advocates for providing military aid.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov held talks with his French counterpart, saying they did not discuss specific fighter jets, but they did talk about aviation “platforms” to help Ukraine's ground-to-air defense.
“I don't know how quick it will be, this response from Western allies” to Kyiv's requests for fighter jets, Reznikov said. “I'm optimistic and I think it will be as soon as possible.”
He also listed weapons Ukraine has sought in the past year, starting with Stingers, and said the first response was always, “Impossible.” Eventually though, he said, “it became possible.”
French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu, speaking with Reznikov, said there are “no taboos” on sending fighter jets. He also confirmed France is sending 12 more Caesar cannons in the coming weeks.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that France doesn't exclude sending fighter jets but set out conditions before such a step is taken, including not leading to an escalation of tensions or using the aircraft “to touch Russian soil,” and not resulting in weakening “the capacities of the French army.”
Reznikov's trip came a week after Western nations pledged to send Kyiv sophisticated modern tanks.
Several Western leaders have expressed concern that providing warplanes could escalate the conflict and draw them in deeper.
The U.K. government, among Kyiv's staunchest supporters and military suppliers, said sending its fighter jets is “not practical.” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's spokesman, Max Blain, said Tuesday that “the U.K.'s Typhoon and F-35 fighter jets are extremely sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly,” although he didn't say London was opposed to other nations sending planes.
Asked Monday if his administration was considering sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden responded, “No.”
On Tuesday, Reznikov was asked if Biden's `'no” to F-16s was the final word.
“All types of help first passed through the `no' stage,” he said. “Which only means `no' at today's given moment. The second stage is, `Let's talk and study technical possibilities.' The third stage is, `Let's get your personnel trained.' And the fourth stage is the transfer (of equipment).”
Reznikov said Ukraine went through those stages before it got the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, the Bradley armored vehicles and 155mm artillery.
“Remember the story of the German Leopards -- the answer was also `no,”' he added. “And now we have a tank coalition. Therefore I believe an airplane coalition is within reach. But first there should always be a leader. And that's why I'm here.”
Kyiv has repeatedly urged allies to send jets, callling them essential to challenging Russia's air superiority and to ensure the success of future counteroffensives spearheaded by Western tanks.
The West also has ruled out providing Kyiv with long-range missiles able to hit Russian territory, citing potential escalation.
After months of haggling, Western allies agreed last week to send the tanks, despite the hesitation and caution of some NATO members.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appeared to balk at providing fighter jets, suggesting Sunday the reason for the discussion might be “domestic political motives” in some countries.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Monday there are “no taboos” in efforts to help Ukraine but added that jets “would be a very big next step.”
Asked Tuesday about Western weapons supplies to Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated the Kremlin's view that “NATO long has been directly involved into a hybrid war against Russia.”
Following talks in Moscow with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, he said the Russian military will “take all the necessary measures to derail the fulfillment of Western plans.”
He said Shoukry conveyed a message from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about Ukraine, which repeated calls from Washington for Russia to withdraw. Lavrov said “Russia is ready to hear any serious - I want to underline this word - proposal aimed at comprehensive settlement of the current situation.”
Both Ukraine and Russia are believed to be building up their arsenals for an expected offensive in the coming months after the war being deadlocked on the battlefield during winter.
Asked about Lithuania's call for fighter jets and long-range missiles for Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the comments “reflected an aggressive approach taken by the Baltic nations and Poland, who are ready to do everything to provoke further escalation without thinking about consequences.”
Croatia President Zoran Milanovic, meanwhile, criticized Western nations for supplying Ukraine with tanks and other weapons, arguing those deliveries will only prolong the war.
Early in the conflict, discussions focused on possibly providing Kyiv with Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots are familiar with. In March, the Pentagon rejected Poland's proposal to transfer its MiG-29s to Kyiv through a U.S. base in Germany, citing a risk of triggering a Russia-NATO escalation.
Ukraine inherited a significant fleet of Soviet-made warplanes, including Su-27 and MiG-29 fighter jets and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. Switching to Western aircraft would require Ukrainian crews to undergo long training and raise logistical challenges over maintenance and repair.
Russia methodically targeted Ukrainian air bases and air defense batteries in the opening stage of the war, but Ukraine has relocated its warplanes and concealed air defense assets, resulting in Moscow's failure to gain full control of the skies.
After suffering early, heavy losses, the Russian air force has avoided venturing deep into Ukraine's airspace and mostly focused on close support missions along the front line.