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Warplanes for Ukraine? West weighs tricky options

PARIS: Ukraine has stepped up calls for Western allies to supply military jets in the face of the Russian invasion, but quickly providing war planes would be highly unusual and risky.  “We are people and it is your humanitarian duty to protect us,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday, after Russian forces pressed their advance toward major cities. “If you don’t, if you don’t give us at least planes so we can protect ourselves, there’s only one thing to conclude: you want us to be killed very slowly,” he warned.

Ukraine’s air force fleet consists of ageing Soviet-era MiG-29 and Sukhoi-27 jets, used for aerial combat or supporting ground troops, and heavier Sukhoi-25 jets to take out ground targets, according to the Military Balance assessment by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). These are the only planes Ukrainian pilots could fly immediately without additional training-no NATO or other European ally shows any appetite for taking part directly and risking being deemed a co-combattant by Moscow.

“We must stop this war without becoming warring parties ourselves,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency. It’s the same reason NATO has ruled out trying to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, despite repeated requests by Kyiv.

Deal with Poland?

Only a few former Warsaw Pact countries still have the MiG-29s that would best serve Ukraine as it tries to fend off the Russian advances, according to the IISS. Poland has 28 — which it obtained from Germany for a symbolic one euro some two decades ago-while Slovakia has 14 and Bulgaria 11. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Moldova on Sunday that Washington was “actively” looking at a deal with Poland to provide Ukraine with the planes.

In exchange, US media reports said the US could supply Poland with F-16 fighters. But those replacements might not be immediately available, meaning the Polish air force could find itself short-handed as war rages just over its border. Warsaw also appears unwilling to risk provoking Russia, with the office of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki posting on Twitter on Sunday: “Poland won’t send its fighter jets to #Ukraine as well as allow to use its airports.”

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suggested that EU nations would try to keep quiet on any military aid. “I think it’s advisable in this situation that each country show discretion on equipment delivered to Ukraine,” he said on Sunday.

Airfields destroyed

Another complication is that even if Soviet-era planes are made available, getting them to Ukraine is a delicate matter. “To deliver a plane, it needs to be flown to the country, which could be interpreted as active participation in the conflict” by a NATO country, a French fighter jet pilot told AFP on condition of anonymity. In theory the jets could be brought in by land, but such transport convoys require significant logistical planning, made more difficult by the destruction of several key bridges in Ukraine over the past two weeks.

Western officials are also uncertain on the current operational status of the military bases that house MiG-29s, and the ability of Ukrainian forces to carry out the necessary maintenance operations as the conflict spreads. Several airbases have already been struck, and Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Sunday that an airfield was “put out of action” at Vinnytsia in the centre west, well away from the Russian ground advance until now. – AFP

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