House

Support in both parties grows for providing air power to Ukraine

krainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine
Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

The debate over whether the United States should facilitate the transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine is heating up on Capitol Hill, where a growing number of lawmakers are pressing the Biden administration to fulfill Kyiv’s request for more air power.

Others, urging restraint, fear the move could be a fatal mistake.

The discussion has transcended the partisan divisions routine to Washington, pitting the White House against not only Republicans, but also some of President Biden’s closest Democratic allies. It’s also highlighting the mounting frustration among lawmakers of both parties, who are watching Russia’s bloody invasion unfold with a growing sense of helplessness.

“It’s a very difficult balance. We want to help Ukraine in every way we can without going to war with Russia and starting World War III and risking a nuclear conflict,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

At issue is the fate of 28 Polish fighter jets — Russian-made MiG-29s — which leaders in Warsaw offered last week to transfer to Ukraine. The idea caught the Pentagon off guard, not least because Poland, wary of direct retaliation from Putin, proposed to deliver them first to a U.S. air base in Germany. The administration rejected the idea, warning that the prospect of jets flying out of a U.S. base to contested skies over Ukraine “raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.”

Smith, who’s sided squarely with the administration, offered another reason for blocking the transfer: The MiG-29s are outdated, he said, and would likely fall quick prey to Russia’s superior jets and surface-to-air missiles. 

“Ukraine has jet fighters now, they’re not using them. In fact, all they’re doing is moving them around to make sure they don’t get taken out,” he said. “And the MiG-29 is, as I understand it, an early fourth-generation fighter that would not fare well — it wouldn’t survive against the SU-35, which the Russians have, and it wouldn’t survive against the surface-to-air missiles that Russia has in Ukraine. 

“It would not be a particularly effective platform, and it would have some risk of escalating the conflict,” he continued. “Do the math, it’s not the right decision to make at this point.”

Yet a growing number of lawmakers — many of them on Smith’s committee — are contesting that view. Many of them are deferring to Ukrainian leaders, who are on the ground and have a better sense, these lawmakers say, of what equipment would prove most effective in the fight. 

“If they believe that MiGs are going to assist them in their efforts to prevent Russia from dominating the skies, … I think we should find a way to make it happen,” said Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a member of the Armed Services panel. “They want it; they want it now. I would suggest we do it.” 

“If the country that’s defending itself is asking, and they think it could actually be useful, then I think we should transfer” the planes,” echoed Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), another member of the Armed Services Committee. 

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky gave an impassioned speech to Congress on Wednesday, focused like a laser on the importance of keeping Ukraine’s airspace contested. 

“I can say I have a need,” he said. “I need to protect our sky.” 

That message has found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill, where even those lawmakers conceding that the MiG-29s are not the ideal weapon in the current fight still want to see them transferred to Ukrainian forces. 

“I think the Pentagon makes a very strong argument that they’re not that useful. But Ukraine wants them,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “If it’s a suicide mission, there are many Ukrainians engaging in very high-risk missions. These pilots know exactly what they’re getting into.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an Iraq War veteran, said he’s not convinced the MiG-29s would prove effective in the face of the superior Russian forces. 

“Of course the Ukrainians are asking for everything, but there’s a reason they’re asking for a couple dozen MiGs and hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles,” he said. “It’s a more effective way to keep the skies clear.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also acknowledged that other weapon systems are “probably more effective,” including hellfire missile drones and S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which the Biden administration is trying to get to Kyiv. But he’s also advocating for the MiG-29 transfer, saying their arrival would provide Ukraine with a morale boost at a crucial moment in the war. 

“There’s a lot of debate on the merits. I think symbolically, it would mean a lot to Zelensky,” he said. “Symbolically, it would mean a lot for the people [of Ukraine].”  

The debate arrives as Russian forces have escalated their airstrikes on a number of major cities around Ukraine, including the capital city of Kyiv. The attacks have increasingly targeted civilian areas, including apartment buildings, schools and hospitals. On Wednesday, a Russian airstrike demolished a theater in Mariupol, where hundreds of civilians were sheltering from Putin’s forces. To stave off an attack, they had written the Russian word for “children” in large letters outside the building. It didn’t work. 

Biden on Wednesday had escalated the rhetorical battle against Putin, branding him a war criminal. A day later he revisited the theme, characterizing the Russian president a “murderous dictator.” 

“Putin’s brutality and what he’s doing and his troops are doing in Ukraine is just inhumane,” he said.

Shortly after Zelensky’s speech, Biden released an additional $800 million in new military aid to Ukraine. Still, GOP leaders are hammering the president for what they say is doing too little too late. And “send the planes” has become a rallying cry among Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom voted last week against the $13.6 billion in lethal and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

“What Biden needs to do is provide them the MiGs so they can create their own no-fly zone,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “All of the slowness to action has made this whole situation worse.”

A huge part of the debate hinges on logistics: Not just whether to transfer the Polish planes into Ukraine, but how to do so without sparking global war. There’s plenty of disagreement on that topic, too. 

“We transfer them how the Russians transferred weapons to the Vietnamese, and how the Russians transferred weapons to the North Koreans: You put it on a truck, and you cross it over, and you let them decide if that’s a casus belli for invading a NATO country,” said Gallego.

Not so, said Sherman, who warned that such a convoy would prove too easy a target for Russian forces. 

“You can’t put one of these things in a truck. You might be able to put it into some sort of SuperWide, but you might as well call Putin and tell him exactly where to bomb it,” said Sherman. 

Sherman and others also ruled out the idea of flying the planes directly from a NATO ally, but suggested there are other strategies available for delivering the sensitive cargo.    

“If you launch them from a NATO country, Russia will rightfully interpret that as a NATO attack,” said Brown. He proposed flying them “from a distant country out of the region that could be assessed as a low-risk target by Russia.”

“Do aerial refuel to get them in the theater, if that’s what it takes,” he said. 

Amid the debate, frustrated lawmakers are getting more and more creative with their proposals. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said a Democratic lawmaker last week had offered a novel approach: “Why don’t we just leave the keys in the ignition [and] they can come in and steal them.”

“Obviously , a spurious comment,” Hoyer said. “But showing the complexity of the U.S. not wanting to get our people involved.”

Tags Adam Smith Anthony Brown Brad Sherman Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Michael McCaul Ruben Gallego Russia Seth Moulton Steny Hoyer Ukraine

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