Getting Fighter Jets to Ukraine
It's harder than it sounds.
Reminder: I’ll be joined by Eliot Cohen on Thursday at 8:00 p.m. for the Bulwark livestream. Mark it on your calendar.
1. The MiGs
We have three goals in Ukraine. In descending order of importance they are:
Imposing strategic defeat on Russia
Saving as many lives as possible
Defending the sovereignty of Ukraine
These goals are in tension. For instance, if saving as many lives as possible were the primary goal, then we would be pushing Ukraine to come to whatever terms the Russians demanded. But this would be in direct conflict with the other two aims.
And if our only goal were protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine, then our field of available options would be much broader. We could put boots on the ground in Ukraine, impose a No Fly Zone, or be even more involved than we are already.
But NATO is balancing all three of these important goals, while also prioritizing them. Which constrains our options.
Which brings us to fighter jets.
From the beginning, Ukraine has needed fighter jets with ground attack capabilities. It would be great if we could roll a squadron of A-10s across the border, leave the keys in the ignition, and let the Ukrainian air force go nuts.
But that’s not how this works. Their pilots have not trained on Warthogs. Their flight crews do not have experience servicing these planes. They don’t have a supply of parts on hand to repair them.
So any attempt to give planes to the Ukrainian air force was going to necessitate giving them aircraft similar to what they already fly.
The Ukrainians primarily use MiG-29s and Su-27s. These are Russian-made multi-role fighters. Most NATO members don’t have MiGs or Sukhois. But some of the newer NATO members do: Poland is sitting on 23 MiG-29s because they have not completed the transition to U.S.- and European-made aircraft.1
The obvious answer here is for Poland to give its MiG-29s to Ukraine and have the United States make them whole with American-made fighters. Which is almost what happened.
Poland seems to have agreed to transfer the MiGs to Ukraine only to have the United States back out at the last minute. This seems stupid and heartless—by God can’t we just give the Ukrainians the weapons they need to fight back?