WASHINGTON — The announcement on Tuesday blindsided American officials: Poland, a NATO country that borders Ukraine, was willing to hand off its cache of Soviet-era combat jets to an American airbase in Germany so that they could be deployed to its neighbor fighting Russian aggression.
But almost as quickly as it drew praise on Capitol Hill — “We would like to see those planes there yesterday,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland — the proposal was denounced by Pentagon officials who warned that the idea of fighter jets departing Germany for airspace that is contested by Russia “raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.”
The afternoon’s events crystallized how the fighter jets have become a geopolitical hot potato, revealing fissures between Poland and the United States and within this country’s government on the best way to support Ukraine without triggering a third world war.
“We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,” said John F. Kirby, the press secretary for the Pentagon.
It was a real-time illustration of the tricky territory ahead for the United States and its allies, which have sought from the start to buoy Ukraine without engaging in direct conflict with nuclear-armed Russia, which has threatened to retaliate against any country that interferes militarily in its effort to conquer Ukraine. Article V of the NATO treaty stipulates that an attack on one allied country is an attack on all of them.
The challenge for NATO and the United States is to “try to get into Vladimir Putin’s mind and the Kremlin’s mind and say, does this cross the line and lead to an escalation that we don’t want?” said Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine who is now a research fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
The plane swap, in which Poland would provide more than two dozen MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine and then receive American fighter jets in exchange, was initially seen as a way to help the embattled nation fight off the Russian invasion without setting up a “no-fly zone” that most lawmakers and experts believe would drag NATO into war with Russia that could quickly spiral out of control. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the concept had a “green light” from the United States, as long as Poland made the transfer on its own.
And in recent days, members of Congress from both parties have urged the Biden administration to move forward with the idea, dismissing concerns that it would escalate the conflict because NATO allies are already providing Ukraine with weaponry including Javelin antitank missiles, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, rifles, and body armor.
“What’s the difference between a Javelin, a Stinger, and a plane?” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, in the Capitol on Monday.
“I see this as one more way in which the United States can help Ukraine defend its country against Russian aggression,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat.
But on Tuesday, as she testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, undersecretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland said there is disagreement “among allies and even within the administration” about whether it should move forward with the swap.
Experts in international relations and nuclear conflicts say the idea was never going to be easy to pull off — nor was it clear whether Putin would see the jets as just another weapon instead of as an escalation.
“My first response when I heard of the fighter jets was, honestly, my jaw dropped,” said Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, who said there is a “visceral” difference between planes and other weapons that should not be ignored.
Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the planes could help Ukrainians slow the Russian advance. But he warned that if Washington played a key role in sending planes to Ukraine, Moscow could respond with actions targeting the United States, including potentially a major cyberattack.
“There is definitely a risk of getting caught in a spiral of escalation,” Lohsen wrote in an e-mail of the arrangement proposed by Poland. “I think Russia would not want to let this move go unpunished for fear that further deliveries may follow.”
But others warn that the real risk comes from an emboldened Putin.
“There are also risks to doing less for Ukrainians,” said Christopher Miller, an assistant professor of International History at the Fletcher School. “And so I don’t think it’s at all clear that in the immediate, the safest thing is to do less, and I think actually probably the opposite.”
The transfer, experts said, raises a series of difficult logistical questions. Russia has made it clear that if Ukrainian planes use a neighboring country as a base, they will view that country as being a party to the conflict. It is less clear what would happen if a country sent planes that were then based in Ukraine, but the White House alluded to those concerns.
“It’s obviously a decision by Poland, a sovereign country, to make about delivering planes,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday. “There were some logistical questions, important ones, that are still under discussion about where those planes would take off from and land.”
Blinken suggested Poland would be acting on its own by transferring the planes in the original US plan — not on behalf of NATO.
Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said some European allies had expressed “concerns” about the concept — something that became all the clearer after Poland made its offer on Tuesday, which would have put the planes “at the disposal of” the United States.
“If anything, it kind of demonstrates that the concern about Russia retaliating is very real,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank. “When it comes to escalation, Russia has a real problem and we need to not get over our skis in allowing this to become a NATO-Russia conflict that then escalates into a potential nuclear exchange.”
The Pentagon’s rejection of the plane offer is sure to frustrate lawmakers on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, dismissed concerns about the swap as “hand wringing.”
And Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, said he believed the administration was dragging its feet over fear of Putin.
“The response I’ve gotten from some in the administration is, ‘We’re not sure, It might make Putin mad,’ ” Portman said. “You know, he has invaded his neighbor and he’s killing innocent people — everything makes him mad.”
But there were notes of caution to be heard on Capitol Hill, too, particularly as there is ongoing debate among experts over just how useful the planes would be. Ukraine has defied expectations with its ground forces and any Ukrainian plane would immediately become a Russian target.
“I don’t think we can allow . . . Putin to dictate to the world what we’re allowed or not allowed to do to help somebody defend themselves against his aggression. But we do have to be mindful,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
“When you’re dealing with a situation like this, where there’s an active conflict going on, with a nuclear power involved, I think you have to think through the cost and the benefit of every decision.”