The US is working with Warsaw to help provide Ukraine with Polish fighter jets as part of a deal in which the Pentagon would give Poland F-16s in exchange, as pressure grows for the west to bolster military support in the war with Russia.
The White House said it was negotiating with Poland on a deal and consulting with other NATO allies. But it said there were “a number of challenging practical questions, including how the planes could actually be transferred from Poland to Ukraine”.
“We are also working on the capabilities we could provide to backfill Poland if it decided to transfer plans to Ukraine,” a White House spokesman said.
The Financial Times reported earlier on Saturday that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had made an emotional plea for the US to give Poland and other eastern European allies F-16 fighter jets that would then enable those countries to send their Russian-made warplanes to Ukraine.
In a call with almost 300 US lawmakers on Saturday morning, Zelensky said Ukraine badly needed more aircraft, particularly after NATO decided against creating a no-fly zone because it would risk a broader conflict with Russia, according to people familiar with the call.
Zelensky asked the US to provide Poland and three other NATO countries with American aircraft that would allow them to send Russian-made aircraft to Ukraine, the people said. Ukrainian pilots need Russian-made aircraft since those are the systems they have been trained to fly.
Washington is working to provide more support to Ukraine and this week started sending anti-aircraft stinger missiles – the same weapon that the US provided the Mujahedeen to repel the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. But Ukraine has stressed that it needs aircraft to repel Russia in the air.
One US lawmaker who took part in the call said Zelensky had expressed appreciation for the stingers, but said they were insufficient because they were not able to fly high enough to take out some of the Russian aircraft.
While the US and allies have supplied a range of weapons to Ukraine, they are worried that Vladimir Putin would view the provision of warplanes as a big escalation that he might interpret as NATO effectively entering the conflict against Russia.
Ukraine said some eastern European nations had agreed to provide fighter jets, but the claims were denied. Polish president Andrzej Duda said sending plans would be tantamount to interfering in the conflict.
A senior US defense official earlier said the Pentagon was not “actively entertaining” the idea, but one person familiar with the changing nature of the situation said the White House appeared to be reconsidering.
The White House denied reports that the US had previously opposed the idea, saying it was “a sovereign decision for any country to make”.
Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democratic congressman who participated in the zoom call, told the Financial Times that there was broad bipartisan support in Congress to find creative solutions. He pointed to the example of the US passing the Lend-Lease Act during the second world war to make it easier to provide countries with war supplies and weapons.
“We have to start looking at analogies to the Lend-Lease Act in terms of a 2022 version of it for Ukraine,” Boyle said. “There is widespread bipartisan support in Congress and also popular American support for doing everything we can to arm the Ukrainians. Politically speaking, this is a relatively easy lift. ”
Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, said that Zelensky had made a “desperate plea” for eastern European countries to provide Russian-made planes.
Zelensky reminded the group that a no-fly zone was his top priority but that he wanted more aircraft if that was not possible.
Ben Sasse, a Republican senator, said a no-fly zone would mean sending US pilots into combat against Russia in a “battle between nuclear powers that could spiral out of control quickly.” But he said Washington should supply Ukraine with aircraft, helicopters and drones.
“Let’s resupply Ukraine’s air force today and keep the Ghosts of Kyiv in the skies,” Sasse said, referring to unconfirmed stories of a Ukrainian pilot who had downed several Russian planes.
A senior US defense official on Friday said the Pentagon had provided Ukraine with $ 240mn in military assistance from the $ 350mn President Joe Biden recently approved. She said the remaining $ 110mn would likely arrive in Ukraine over the next week and that the administration was working with Congress to secure more funds.
One lawmaker who participated in the call said there was a unified sense that Zelensky was a “world hero”.
Zelensky opened the call with a 20-minute plea for more US support. But at one point during his emotional presentation, he paused to ask one of the American lawmakers to mute themselves.
“Senator Rick Scott, please mute your mic,” said the Ukrainian leader who was dressed in his customary T-shirt, according to one person on the call.
Additional reporting by James Shotter