Scuttled Plan to Give Polish Jets to Ukraine Stirs Frustration on Capitol Hill

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A Polish Air Force MiG-29 fighter accelerates and climbs.
A Polish Air Force MiG-29 fighter accelerates and climbs during a formation flight with a U. S. Air Force C-130 Hercules in northern Poland, March 15, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Todd A. Pendleton)

U.S. lawmakers are fuming that the Biden administration nixed an offer to provide Ukraine with Soviet-era fighter jets but do not plan to try to force the administration's hand through legislation.

Lawmakers in both parties are writing letters, going on television and grilling officials at hearings after the administration rejected a Polish plan to give the United States its old MiG-29 fighter jets to deliver to Ukraine.

But several senators mad about the ill-fated deal told Military.com late last week they have no plans for legislation, saying they are banking on the pressure campaign to change President Joe Biden's mind.

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Legislation "takes time," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who earlier this month sent a letter with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, calling for Biden to facilitate aircraft transfers to Ukraine. "So I think it would be better to have this resolved without that."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded both publicly and privately for Western countries to give Ukraine aircraft so it can close off its skies to Russian forces, since NATO has refused to impose a no-fly zone for fear of sparking a NATO-Russia war.

Zelenskyy is scheduled to virtually address Congress on Wednesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced Monday.

While it's unclear exactly what he will say Wednesday, Zelenskyy has used his previous interactions with U.S. lawmakers, including a Zoom call with hundreds of them earlier this month, to appeal for aircraft.

Last week, Poland said it was prepared to transfer its fleet of 28 MiGs to the U.S. military's Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where the United States could then give the jets to Ukraine.

The public offer blindsided U.S. officials. By the next day, the Pentagon had flatly rejected the plan, saying there was too high a risk of provoking Russia by flying jets from NATO territory for too little a reward since U.S. officials do not believe a couple dozen more jets will significantly improve Ukraine's air force.

A senior defense official told reporters Friday that Ukraine is not using its existing aircraft "very much" and is flying only about five to 10 sorties a day, compared to Russia's 200 sorties. About 56 of Ukraine's fighter jets, or 80% of its fleet, remained intact Friday, the official said.

Despite the United States not wanting to be a middleman, Poland could still unilaterally send the jets to Ukraine if it wants.

But lawmakers want the Biden administration to facilitate the deal, in part because Poland is also asking for the United States to replace any jets it sends to Ukraine with U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets.

After the Pentagon rejected Poland's offer, 42 Republican senators, led by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, sent a letter to Biden saying they "implore you to act without delay to provide urgently needed airpower that will bolster the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to defend their country and help save civilian lives."

Separately, on Sunday, 58 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a House bloc that's divided equally by party, released a statement urging the administration to facilitate the MiG deal, as well as potential arrangements for allies to send Ukraine S-300 surface-to-air missiles, Su-25 aircraft and drones.

Lawmakers also grilled administration officials at several hearings Thursday on their rejection of the MiG deal and appeared on cable news on Sunday to press the issue.

"I'd like to see the planes over there," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said on CNN, though she added she understands concerns that "there's been so much focus on these planes, especially these particular planes, that they themselves could become a target."

Klobuchar and Portman, along with Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., were in Poland over the weekend meeting with Polish officials and Ukrainian refugees.

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., highlighted how the United States circumvented its official neutrality at the beginning of World War II by having Canadians pull aircraft across the border with horses and trucks to give to Britain.

"It's not impossible to figure out a way to solve the problem if we wanted to solve the problem," Sasse said.

Despite the public posturing from lawmakers, a senior defense official told reporters Monday they "know of no push from the Hill to have conversations with [Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin] about the MiGs." The official also stressed that the administration's position on the jets has not changed.

Lawmakers have forced Biden's hand in other areas of the Ukraine conflict. The administration reversed its stance on Russian oil imports and announced a ban after it became clear Congress would pass a bill to prohibit oil imports if the executive branch didn't act.

But a similar legislative movement does not appear to be afoot for the fighter jets.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that Congress moves too slowly for a bill to make a difference in getting the jets to Ukraine.

"For crying out loud, the war might be over by the time Congress passed something," Risch told Military.com, adding he's hopeful the administration "will eventually do the right thing like they have on everything else from sanctions to Stinger missiles."

The sweeping government funding and Ukraine aid bill passed by Congress last week included language meant to incentivize allies to give aircraft and other weapons to Ukraine. Specifically, the bill authorizes the administration to use funding from the Foreign Military Financing Program for loans or loan guarantees for NATO allies that send equipment to Ukraine and so need to buy new weapons for themselves. But the bill does not force the Biden administration to make those deals.

Biden administration ally Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., argued Congress should not get involved in the fighter jet issue.

"We should stop micromanaging this crisis," Murphy told reporters. "The administration is presenting very good reasons for the position they've taken on the MiGs, and I'm not sure it helps to have Congress doing a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

-- Deputy Managing Editor Travis Tritten contributed to this article. He can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

Related: Poland's Plan to Give US its Fleet of MiG Fighter Jets for Ukraine Blindsides American Officials

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