Defense

Lawmakers raise pressure on White House to back Poland plan

AP-Alik Keplicz

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have upped the pressure on the Biden administration to support Poland’s plan to send fighter jets to Ukraine, despite officials’ insistence the idea is moot.

The administration last week called the move to take Warsaw’s fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets to then transfer to Kyiv a high-risk and “escalatory” response to Russian aggression, but the demands to reverse course speak to larger pressure to do more to help Ukraine. 

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky is likely to ask Congress to back the plan in a virtual address on Wednesday, ramping up more pressure on the administration even as it has insisted it will not budge.

​​”It could be perceived as escalatory,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

But the throwing of cold water on the idea has gotten lawmakers hot, with several taking to the airwaves, congressional hearing rooms and other methods to exert outside pressure. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday plans to introduce a resolution meant to force the administration’s hand. It supports the transfer of the fighter jets and other aircraft systems to the embattled country. During a Tuesday appearance on Fox News, Graham said he thought President Biden “folded like a cheap suit” on the issue. 

“What I think happened is that the Russians told Biden and his team that if you send these MiGs in, that would be an escalation and they were intimidated by Putin,” Graham said. “We can’t let Putin determine who’s in NATO, we can’t let Putin determine what we do to help Ukraine.” 

Top House and Senate Republicans — in a Tuesday letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — pressed the two officials to “re-evaluate the flawed conclusion that the transfer of these fighter jets to Ukraine would be ‘escalatory’ in comparison to the weapon systems that have already been delivered to Ukraine by the U.S. and our allies and partners.”

Democrats have also backed the move.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that she told the White House that she’d “like to see the planes over there” in Ukraine if the time is right.

But she also allowed that “things shift,” referring to the scrutiny around such a transfer.

“As things become a target, because there’s so much public discussion about them, that can become an issue itself. And that’s no one’s fault. It just happened.” 

The public outcry is the latest chapter in the messy geopolitical chess game the administration is playing.

Poland caught the administration by surprise when it announced last Tuesday that it was ready to send all 28 of its MiG-29 fighter jets to the U.S. military’s Ramstein Airbase in Germany. In return, it wanted the U.S to essentially send Warsaw new F-16 fighter jets as replacements.

The Pentagon quickly swatted down the plan, in large part because it felt that Russia could perceive the move as escalatory, a feeling the Kremlin has fed with thinly veiled threats against any country that goes out of its way to help Ukraine beyond certain military aid. 

Asked at the Tuesday White House briefing to explain how sending aircraft might increase tensions with Moscow compared to sending Stinger missiles and other lethal aid, Psaki said such an assessment came from the Defense Department.

“A big part of their assessment was related to where these planes would take off from and how would you get them into Ukraine,” Psaki said. “So that was something they were exploring and discussing with a range of partners. But their assessment was also based specifically on the transfer of it to Ukraine and that that may be mistaken as escalatory.”

In the 20 days since Russia’s war with Ukraine began, Ukrainian forces have been able to handle the ground war but haven’t had as much success when it comes to fending off the Kremlin’s air attacks.  

U.S. officials have said they do not believe the extra MiGs will significantly improve Ukraine’s air defenses, though others argue the aircraft could go a long way in helping them maintain their position and their morale. 

“Even if they get six or 10 MiGs, they still would not have complete control of the airspace over their country or even over the western part of their country,” said Ret. Brig Gen. Kevin Ryan, former Defense attaché to Russia.

“But it would be something and it would help them immensely both with the air fight but also in morale to know that other countries are really stepping up,” he continued.

The MiG-29 jets were first introduced by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and the Ukrainian Air Force is already trained to use them. 

Ryan said he thought Poland didn’t want to send the jets on its own for fear Russia would retaliate against Warsaw. But he was doubtful that Russia would take such a step.

“I don’t think they would strike Poland or the United States’ air base,” he said. “They’d do something else but I don’t think they would risk bombing a NATO country. At the moment, they’re keeping it in Ukraine.” 

Aside from the MiGs, there is a growing consensus among American officeholders that the U.S. should be doing more to help Kyiv.

If sending MiGs is not feasible now, then the administration should look for other ways to help Ukraine guard its airspace, according to Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under the Obama administration.

“We know what they need. We know what effects we know what effects we want to achieve. So come up with some way to achieve that effect,” she said.

That was exactly what the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus urged the Biden administration to do, according to a statement signed by all 58 members on Sunday.

The House bloc pressed the administration to help Poland go through with the MiGs transfer, as well as facilitate possible ways for allies to send Ukraine “more comprehensive air defense systems to defend Ukraine and its people,” including Su-25 aircraft, S-300 surface-to-air missiles and drones. 

“Unmanned platforms — to include both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities — could prove critical to Ukrainian efforts to combat Russia’s advances,” the caucus said.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Antony Blinken Jen Psaki Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Lloyd Austin Poland Russia Ukraine

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