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Poland to give Ukraine warplanes

U.S. praises Warsaw, but resists appeal by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports | March 17, 2023 at 4:48 a.m.
A civilian walks past destroyed buildings Thursday in Siversk in the Donetsk province of eastern Ukraine. As the battle for Bakhmut intensifies, Siversk, which is partially surrounded by Russian forces, has been the target of numerous bombings. (The New York Times/Tyler Hicks)

WARSAW, Poland -- Poland said Thursday that it plans to give Ukraine about a dozen MiG-29 fighter jets, which would make it the first NATO member to fulfill Kyiv's increasingly urgent requests for warplanes to defend itself against the Russian invasion.

In Washington, the Biden administration released video of a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a U.S. Air Force surveillance drone as the U.S. sought to hold Russia responsible for the collision that led to the drone's crash into the Black Sea without escalating already fraught tensions with the Kremlin.

Warsaw will hand over four of the Soviet-made warplanes "within the next few days," President Andrzej Duda said, and the rest needed servicing but would be supplied later. The Polish word he used to describe the total number can mean between 11 and 19.

"They are in the last years of their functioning, but they are in good working condition," Duda said.

He did not say whether other countries would follow suit, although Slovakia has said it would send its own disused MiGs to Ukraine.

Poland also was the first NATO nation to provide Ukraine with German-made Leopard 2 tanks.

On Wednesday, Polish government spokesman Piotr Mueller said some other countries also had pledged MiGs to Kyiv, but did not identify them.

Both Poland and Slovakia had indicated they were ready to hand over their planes, but only as part of a wider international coalition doing the same.

The government in neighboring NATO member Germany appeared caught off guard by Duda's announcement.

"So far, everyone has agreed that it's not the time to send fighter jets," German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters. "I don't have any confirmation from Poland yet that this has happened."

The White House called Poland's move a sovereign decision and lauded the Poles for continuing to "punch above their weight" in assisting Kyiv, but it stressed the move would have no bearing on President Joe Biden, who has resisted calls to provide U.S. F-16s to Ukraine.

"There's no change in our view with respect to fighter aircraft at this time," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

"That is our sovereign decision. That is where we are, other nations can speak to their own" decisions.

The White House said Poland notified the U.S. of its decision to provide MiGs before Duda announced the move.

Before Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine had several dozen MiG-29s it inherited in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but it's unclear how many remain in service after more than a year of fighting.

The debate over whether to provide non-NATO member Ukraine with fighter jets started last year, but NATO allies expressed concern about escalating the alliance's role in the war.

The hesitation continued even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made increasingly vocal pleas for Western supporters to share their warplanes.

Duda made the announcement in Warsaw, after a meeting with the new president of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, a retired general and former chair of NATO's Military Committee. Duda said that the rapid delivery of the four MiGs to Ukraine would be followed "gradually" by more than a dozen others that Poland has in its stocks, once they had been repaired and prepared for combat.

He said that Poland's air force would replace the jets with FA-50s from South Korea, the first of which are expected to be delivered later this year, and F-35s ordered from the United States.

Polish officials, including Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, had previously said that their country was ready to send Ukraine its entire fleet of MiG-29s -- thought to number around 28, but not all operational -- but only "within the framework of a larger coalition" of countries that also use the planes. Duda made no mention of any such condition having been met Thursday.

One European defense official familiar with Poland's plans cautioned that it might still take some time for the MiG jets to be delivered, citing "some formalities" that needed to be completed first. The official said it was expected that Slovakia would also contribute MiG jets to Ukraine.

Poland -- which shares a 330-mile border with Ukraine, has taken in more than 1.5 million war refugees and is the main transit route for Western arms flowing into Ukraine -- has long lobbied its allies within NATO to send more and better weapons to help Ukrainian forces fight back against Russia. It pressured Germany into agreeing earlier this year to send advanced Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, and sent a handful of its own Leopard tanks to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, last month during a visit there by the Polish prime minister.

But Poland has sometimes run ahead of itself in its eagerness to aid Ukraine.

It said last March that it was ready to send its fleet of MiG-29s to Ukraine, on condition that the United States replace them with more modern U.S.-made jets.

The plan fell apart after Poland abruptly announced that, instead of sending the planes directly to Ukraine, it would send them to a U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, for transfer to Ukraine. Blindsided by a Polish plan it had not been consulted about, Washington dismissed the Ramstein idea as a nonstarter. None of the planes left Poland.

An effort to send MiGs to Ukraine in collaboration with Slovakia, which also uses the Soviet-era warplanes, also stumbled, largely as a result of Slovak political ructions, which led to a successful no-confidence vote in December against the country's strongly pro-Ukrainian government.

Slovakia's prime minister, Eduard Heger, has said since that this country still wants to send its MiGs to Ukraine, but his opponents insist that no decision be taken until after new elections later this year.


The Pentagon's European Command on Thursday released the first declassified video images of the events leading up to a Russian fighter jet colliding with an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance drone on Tuesday, forcing the U.S. aircraft down into the Black Sea.

The U.S. military's declassified 42-second color footage shows a Russian Su-27 approaching the back of the MQ-9 Reaper drone and releasing fuel as it passes, the Pentagon said. Dumping the fuel appeared to be aimed at blinding the drone's optical instruments to drive it from the area.

On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian Su-27 that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone's propeller, damaging a blade, according to the U.S. military, which said it then ditched the aircraft in the sea.

The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the damage to the propeller.

Russia said its fighters didn't strike the drone and claimed the unmanned aerial vehicle went down after making a sharp maneuver.

While calling out Russia for "reckless" action, the White House tried to strike a balance to avoid exacerbating tensions. U.S. officials said they have not been able to determine whether the Russian pilot intentionally struck the American drone and stressed that lines of communication with Moscow remain open.

"I can't point to that video and say this is a deliberate attempt to escalate or ... tangibly bring about Putin's false claim that this is about the West versus Russia.," Kirby said. "We have made clear on many occasions, we do not seek a conflict with Russia."

Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the U.S. and its allies have effectively become engaged in the war, now in its 13th month.

Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia's Security Council, said Wednesday that an attempt would be made to recover the drone debris.

U.S. officials have expressed confidence that nothing of military value would remain from the drone even if Russia retrieved the wreckage. They left open the possibility of trying to recover portions of the downed $32 million aircraft, which they said crashed into waters that were 4,000 to 5,000 feet deep, although the U.S. does not have any ships in the area.

Russia and NATO member countries routinely intercept one another's warplanes, but Tuesday's incident marked the first time since the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft went down during such a confrontation, raising concerns it could bring the United States and Russia closer to a direct conflict.

Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights near the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed.

The top U.S. and Russian defense and military leaders spoke Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the event's seriousness.

The calls between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, as well as between Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian General Staff, were the first since October.

Austin on Wednesday accused Russia of "dangerous and reckless and unprofessional behavior" in blaming Moscow for the downing of the drone. Russia has denied any wrongdoing and initially blamed the crash on faulty maneuvering by the American drone operators.

Austin said he called Shoigu on Wednesday to clear the air. He declined to say whether Shoigu repeated his country's denials that a Russian warplane swiped the American MQ-9 Reaper, causing it to crash into the Black Sea, but he said that just having a conversation was important given the events.

Shoigu countered that the incident was caused by U.S. noncompliance with a flight restriction zone declared by Russia, the Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement. It called U.S. drone flights off the coast of Crimea "provocative in nature."

Russia initially denied that its warplanes were to blame, saying in a statement on Tuesday that after the Russian air force scrambled fighter jets to identify the drone, the unmanned U.S. aircraft maneuvered sharply, lost altitude and hit the water.

The United States and Ukraine say the unarmed American drone was flying in international airspace on a routine surveillance and reconnaissance mission. U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said they share intelligence gathered by such missions, particularly related to the threat posed by Russian warships and submarines in the Black Sea.

The MQ-9, which has a 66-foot wingspan, includes a ground control station and satellite equipment. It is capable of carrying munitions, but Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, would not say whether the ditched drone had been armed.


The video's release is the latest example of the Biden administration making public intelligence findings over the course of the war. The administration has said it wants to highlight Russian malicious activity as well as plans for Russian misinformation operations so allies remain clear-eyed about Moscow's intent.

The White House deferred to Austin on the decision to release it, with the Pentagon and Biden's national security aides agreeing it was important to let the world see what happened, according to an administration official familiar with the decision-making process. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations, said it took time to go through the declassification process and insisted the administration was not concerned it would further escalate tensions with Russia.

Because the video does not show the actual collision, some involved in the decision to release the footage wondered whether the Russians would seize on that as proof there was no contact between the jet and the drone, according to another official familiar with the discussions about making it public. Those concerns were overcome when the Pentagon explained that the video showed the immediate aftermath and damage to the drone's propeller, which could have come only from a collision, according to the second official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose the details.

The video clip released Thursday captures just a slice of what Pentagon officials say happened in the roughly 40 minutes leading up to the collision. During that time, while the drone was flying at about 25,000 feet, two Russian Su-27 fighter jets made 19 high-speed passes near the Reaper, dumping jet fuel on it during the last three or four, a senior U.S. military official said Wednesday.

The collision happened on the last pass, as one of the Russian planes approached the drone at a high speed from behind. As the jet pulled up sharply, it collided with the MQ-9's rear propeller, the official said.

The damaged Reaper drone limped along before its controllers brought down the $32 million aircraft in the sea about 75 miles southwest of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Russia has used as a base for launching devastating strikes.

Information for this article was contributed by Karl Ritter, Aamer Madhani, Dino Hazell, Matthew Lee and staff writers of The Associated Press and by Andrew Higgins and Eric Schmitt of The New York Times.

  photo  Poland's President Andrzej Duda, 2nd right, and his wife Agata Kornhauser-Duda, right, welcome Czech Republic's President Petr Pavel with his wife Eva as they meet at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
  photo  Poland's President Andrzej Duda, right, welcomes Czech Republic's President Petr Pavel as they meet at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

  photo  A Russian Su-27 approaches the back of the MQ-9 drone and begins to release fuel as it passes, over the Black Sea, the Pentagon said. The Pentagon has released footage Thursday of what it says is a Russian aircraft conducting an unsafe intercept of a U.S. Air Force surveillance drone in international airspace over the Black Sea. (AP/US Department of Defense)

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