After tanks for Ukraine, are fighter jets next in line?

Tuesday, 31 January 2023 (21:13 IST)
Kyiv scored a major coup last week in convincing Western allies — particularly a reluctant Germany — to send modern battle tanks to help fight off Russia. Ukraine now seems emboldened to renew its calls for fighter jets. Such pleas have fallen upon deaf ears up to now. Could that be about to change?
What does Ukraine want and why?
Kyiv has been asking for fighter jets since soon after Russia launched its full-scale invasion last February. After the change of heart on tanks last week, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Canadian broadcaster CBC he was optimistic that allies could supply jets. These would be a "game changer," Reznikov said, adding that he expected intense discussions in the coming weeks. Ukraine's ambassador to Germany, Oleksii Makeiev, told DW in an interview on Monday that his country hadn't requested Berlin to provide any fighter jets — yet.
Exactly which planes Kyiv would want and how many is not yet clear. Ukraine's deputy foreign minister, Andriy Melnyk, called recently for "a powerful fighter jet coalition for Ukraine," comprising US-made F-16s and F-35s, Eurofighter, Tornado, Rafale and Gripen warplanes.
F-16s are of particular interest, because many European countries are looking to replace these with newer F-35s, German Marshall Fund senior fellow Bruno Lete told DW. "Unfortunately for Ukraine, many of the fighter jets that they had were destroyed in the very beginning of the military campaign in February 2022," he said, adding that the remaining ones are old, a mix from Soviet times. From Kyiv's perspective, fighter jets are the missing component of a full arsenal, according to Lete.
What does the United States say?
Washington, Kyiv's biggest military backer in real terms, had previously opposed sending fighter jets. President Joe Biden said Monday he wouldn't provide them.
Last March, the White House said allies providing Soviet-era MiG-29 aircraft, as requested by Kyiv, would not make a huge difference. Moreover such a move "could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO," said John Kirby, then the spokesperson for the US Department of Defense.
However, citing unnamed sources, news outlet Politico recently reported that some US military officials supported the transfer and were trying to convince Defense Department officials. The US also previously said it wouldn't send main battle tanks, and then changed its mind.
What do Germany and other European countries say?
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly shot down the prospect of Berlin sending jets in the past week. On Sunday, Scholz said that what was needed at present was a serious debate, not "a bidding competition... in which perhaps domestic political motives play a bigger role than support for Ukraine," dpa news agency reported.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that "nothing is ruled out" in principle, but deliveries would have to be useful, given the long training time for such aircraft, and must not escalate the conflict, in comments carried by The Associated Press. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte similarly said there were "no taboos" in terms of what could be delivered, but that sending fighter jets would indeed be a massive step forward, AP reported.
The reason Western allies have resisted sending fighter jets is because it increases Ukraine’s ability to encroach onto Russian territory. "It's a very sensitive issue here to give that, because it would make it much more easy for Ukraine to actually attack targets inside Russia," Lete explained.
Poland, considered one of Ukraine's most ardent backers, has offered up its own MiG-29 jets in the past. On Monday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also did not rule out a possible supply of F-16s, AP reported. Morawiecki also said in remarks posted on his website that any such transfer would take place "in complete coordination" with NATO countries.
What does Russia say?
If Western fighter jets were transferred to Ukraine, Moscow's reaction would likely be sharp. After Berlin announced it would send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Moscow said Germany had abandoned its historic responsibility for Nazi crimes in Russia in World War II, and would compound suffering in the present conflict.
"With the approval of the leadership of Germany, battle tanks with German crosses will again be sent to the 'eastern front', which will inevitably lead to the deaths of not only Russian soldiers, but also the civilian population," Russia's ambassador to Germany, Sergey Nechayev, said last week. Such moves make the future normalization of relations much more difficult, Moscow has stressed.
So how likely is it to happen?
Lete thinks there is a strong chance that Western countries will send jets — even Germany. It wouldn't be the first time that red lines have been crossed, he said, pointing to the example of Leopard 2 tanks and before that to HIMARS rocket launchers.
Berlin also looked to Washington for cues on the tank question. "If the Americans are on board, I think Germany will be on board as well," he said.
"We really now see that the West is ready to provide offensive weapons that Ukraine needs," Lete said. "This political sensitivity [about delivering] capabilities that Ukraine could even use to attack Russia, even that red line is more and more fading away.”
NATO boots on the ground in Ukraine remain a clear red line for Lete, as is of course the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Nonetheless, it is also worth remembering that there are significant logistical challenges linked to providing such military equipment. Ukraine said last week it would take its pilots about six months to train for combat in Western fighter jets such as F-16s.
As the war drags on, Lete sees the debate shifting.
"Since the start of the war, we've seen really two camps in Europe. You have one camp of countries that really wants Ukraine to win the war, and winning the war really means you have to defeat Russia. And then there's another camp of countries that wants peace and would be happy enough with some sort of settlement," he said. "Right now the camp that wants to win the war, that really wants to push Russia back, is becoming more influential."

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