The Pentagon told Poland thanks but no thanks for offering 28 Soviet-era MIG-29s to Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s decision added an unnecessary element of confusion. The snub to Warsaw came after the Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News’ Margaret Brennan the transfer of the fighters got the “green light.” Brennan’s question to Blinken was quite specific. Was he in favor of the transfer of Poland’s fighters to Ukraine, or was he concerned giving Ukraine the jets would escalate the level of the conflict?
“[W]e’re talking with our Polish friends right now about what we might be able to do to backfill their needs if, in fact, they choose to provide these fighter jets to the Ukrainians,” Blinken told Brennan emphatically. That was on Sunday, March 6. On Wednesday, March 9, John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters a different story. Kirby explained that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had spoken with his counterpart Minister of National Defense (MND), Mariusz Blaszczak. Austin clarified with Blaszczak that the US did “not support the transfer of additional aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force at this time.”
The Pentagon spokesman continued with the reasons the US defense secretary gave Polish MDN:
- The best way to support the Ukrainian armed forces is to provide the weapons they need most to defeat Russian aggression, mainly anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons
- The Ukrainian Air Force currently has squadrons of aircraft that are “fully mission capable.”
- The US assesses the addition of aircraft would not “significantly change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capabilities.
- And lastly, and it’s worth quoting Kirby verbatim, “[T]he intelligence community has assessed the transfer of MIG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory,” he said.
The US Defense Department says there is too much risk the Russians will see the Soviet-era fighters as escalating the conflict. But how is that possible? Isn’t the third reason for turning down the Polish initiative that the effectiveness of Ukraine’s Air Force would not change with the additions of the fighter jets. If the correlation of force does not change, how can the Russians see the MIG-29s as escalating the conflict?
Furthermore, if reason number one is the best way to support Ukraine’s armed forces with Javelin Anti-tank Missiles and Stinger Anti-aircraft missiles, then the conflict has already been escalated. Besides, Secretary of State Blinken disagrees with the Pentagon’s assessment. In his CBS interview, Blinken said he had been in consultation, “working closely,” with NATO, allies, the European Union, and the G7 countries about how “to increase the pressure on Russia… taking further steps to give the Ukrainians what they need to defend themselves against Russian aggression.” So, the Biden administration’s chief diplomat was not just “blue-skying” with CBS’s Brennan when he said he did not see the transfer of the jets as escalating tensions.
Unpacking Secretary Austin’s conversation with Blaszczak, one cannot help but be struck by the hubris of the Pentagon leader. The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, pleaded for the transfer of the MIG fighters. If the video reports from Kyiv are anything to go by, Ukraine’s leader is on the ground experiencing the Russian bombardments daily. He and his military leaders are better positioned to assess what would help beat back Putin’s invaders. Not to belabor the point, but if the 28 MIG-29s won’t change the battlefield calculus, then escalating the level of hostilities isn’t a compelling argument. But according to the Ukraine president, it’s what the courageous Ukraine fighters believe they need. And seeing more Ukrainian jets over the battlefield will raise the comfort level of the soldiers fighting for their lives on the ground. That’s why in all ground engagements US forces are in, air support is vital. So why would the US Defense Department deny Zelensky’s pleas for more air assets?
What appears to be happening is the Pentagon is hiding behind an intelligence community (IC) assessment that does not square with the other rationale for turning the Poles down. It’s painful to remember, but the IC the Defense Department finds convenient to believe now is the same group whose assessment was dismissed before the Afghanistan withdrawal disaster. What are Americans to think? Biden’s defense team does not have commonly held, consistent, and compelling logic for addressing the catastrophe taking place on NATO’s borders. Between the State Department saying one thing and the Pentagon saying something different, the world sees the most powerful country in the world as indecisive. Putin sees the indecision as an opportunity to keep the invasion going. And, he is.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.