Talk of fighter jets for Ukraine puts strains on Western unity

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Ukraine’s push for fighter jets to help beat back Russia’s invasion force risks straining the unity of Ukraine’s Western allies, amid fears that the move could escalate the nearly year-long conflict and draw them deeper into the war.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksi Reznikov was due in Paris on Tuesday and the possible delivery of fighter jets to Ukraine was expected to be on the agenda.

Kyiv officials have repeatedly urged allies to send jets, saying they are essential to challenge Russia’s air superiority and to ensure the success of future counter-offensives that could be spearheaded by tanks recently promised by Western countries.

There has been no indication that a decision on warplanes to Ukraine might come any time soon and no sign that Western countries have changed their earlier stance on the issue.

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Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksi Reznikov was attending talks in Paris on Tuesday (Michael Probst/AP)

Both Ukraine and Russia are believed to be building up their arsenals for an expected offensive in coming months. The war has been largely deadlocked on the battlefield during the winter.

Asked about Lithuania’s call for Western countries to provide Ukraine with fighter jets and long-range missiles, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the comments reflect “an aggressive approach taken by the Baltic nations and Poland, who are ready to do everything to provoke further escalation without thinking about consequences”.

“It’s very sad that the leaders of big European countries that drive the European agenda don’t fulfil a balancing role to offset such extremist inclinations,” Mr Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that France does not exclude sending fighter jets to Ukraine, but he laid out multiple conditions before such a significant step is taken.

The conditions, he said, include not leading to an escalation of tensions or using the aircraft “to touch Russian soil”, and not resulting in weakening “the capacities of the French army”.

He also said Ukraine must formally request the planes, something that could happen when Mr Reznikov sits down for talks in Paris.

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A local resident walks past a school that was damaged by Russian shelling in the town of Orekhovo (Andriy Andriyenko/AP)

Asked by a reporter on Monday if his administration is considering sending Ukraine F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said “No”.

Mr Biden’s deputy national security adviser, Jon Finer, said in an MSNBC interview last week that the US would discuss fighter jets “very carefully” with Ukraine and allies.

Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz appeared to balk at the prospect of providing fighter jets, suggesting on Sunday that the reason for the entire discussion might be down to “domestic political motives” in some countries.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Monday that there are “no taboos” in efforts to help Ukraine, but he added that sending jets “would be a very big next step”.

As in previous debates about how to help Ukraine, Poland is a leading advocate in the European Union for providing military aid. Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic countries on Nato’s eastern flank feel especially threatened by Russia.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen visit the site of recent Russian shelling in Mykolaiv (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)

Earlier in the conflict, discussions focused on the possibility of providing Kyiv with Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots are familiar with.

In March, the Pentagon rejected Poland’s proposal to transfer its MiG-29 fighter jets to Kyiv through a US base in Germany, citing a high risk of triggering a Russia-Nato escalation.

Western warplanes would offer Ukraine a major boost, but countering Russia’s massive air force would still be a major challenge.

Ukraine inherited a significant fleet of Soviet-made warplanes, including Su-27 and MiG-29 fighter jets and Su-25 ground attack aircraft.

Switching to Western aircraft would require Ukrainian crews to undergo long training and would also raise logistical challenges linked to their maintenance and repair.

Russia methodically targeted Ukrainian air bases and air defence batteries in the opening stage of the conflict, but Ukraine has been smart about relocating its warplanes and concealing air defence assets, resulting in Russia’s failure to gain full control of the skies.

After suffering heavy losses early on in the conflict, the Russian air force has avoided venturing deep into Ukraine’s airspace and mostly focused on close support missions along the frontline.

The Ukrainian air force has faced similar challenges, trying to save its remaining warplanes from being hit by Russian fighter jets and air defence systems.

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