Saturday, April 27, 2024

MiG-29 fighters for Ukraine: A failed honesty exam

Polish Mig-29, 2016. (Source: Bundesheer Fotos)

In a military sense, it seems that the operation has failed. But what does the whole story show?

Paweł Lisicki

The story of the transfer of 28 MiG fighter planes from Poland to Ukraine looked quite peculiar from the very beginning. Firstly, it is not known whether such a proposal was made at all, and if so, where it came from. Indeed, such a possibility, or more precisely such a demand, was mentioned by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, although it is also difficult to say whether it came from him directly. Later, the news about this topic circulated in the Polish media for a while, eventually turning only into a rumor. I am not going to quote all the messages and statements here – but I have no doubts about two facts. First, it was the US that wanted Poles to deliver the MiGs to Ukrainians. Second, the Polish government was level-headed and prudent to oppose this.

Last Tuesday, the Polish government, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offered to hand over all MiG-29 fighters to the US Ramstein air base in Germany. In this way, the Polish government responded to the suggestions of the USA, which announced earlier, thanks to Anthony Blinken, that Poland was given the “green light” and could hand over the planes to Ukraine. Due to Warsaw’s move, it is the US government, and not the Polish government, that could hand over the planes to Ukraine. In addition, Poland asked – which again was a smart move – to provide other fighters (maybe F-16, maybe F-35) to replace the MiG-29. It can be concluded that what the Polish government did was a form of examining the sincerity of American intentions. Since they say so much about the readiness to help Ukraine and promise to hand over planes, they could finally show it by receiving the MiGs.

The Americans failed the honesty test. As soon as a Polish proposal was made, the Pentagon immediately announced that it would not agree to the transfer of Polish fighters to an American military base. US officials described the Polish government’s proposal as “unreasonable” and “risky”.

It is, however, quite the opposite. I do not know which person in power was the author of the concept – whether the Prime Minister, the President, or somebody else – but it was an absolutely “reasonable” and “non-risky” move. Poland has shown, though it was not always visible before, that it was guided by its own national interest and could not be fooled. In a military sense, it therefore seems that the operation has failed. But what does the whole story show?

Firstly, and this is what some journalists, such as Łukasz Warzecha or Piotr Zychowicz, pointed out, Americans are very eager to shift risk liability onto others, onto their allies in particular. This should be a serious warning for Poland: even friendship and joint struggle against Putin cannot mean forgetting about Polish interests.

Secondly, I cannot but ask myself why Washington was so anxious for Polish MiGs to be delivered to Ukraine from Poland. It was known that Moscow had previously announced that such a move would be treated as involvement in the war. So where did this “green light” and media pressure that was to push Warsaw into action come from?

Perhaps it was about checking Russia’s reaction. If the MiG fighters were to take off from a US base in Germany, Russia’s possible response could be a military strike against Germany or the Americans directly. However, if the planes were to start from Warsaw, the situation – it can be assumed that this is how US military strategists could have reasoned – would be different. Many of them believe that Russia is already lying on its shoulders and that it will surrender at any moment. Sending planes from Poland, and not from Germany, would allow this thesis to be tested. If, in fact, the Russians are as weak as intelligence reports show, there would be no reaction. The Russians could always say that they will not respond to the taunts, because this is not the action of the entire NATO, but of one unruly member state. In this way, the Americans would kill two birds with one stone: they would strengthen Ukraine militarily and gain confidence in Putin’s weakness. Then it would be easier to decide, for instance, if the airspace over Ukraine should be closed.

Of course, what I described is a positive scenario in which Russia is not reacting because it is too weak. And the dark scenario? Polish MiG fighters fly into Ukraine and Russian missiles begin to hit Poland in retaliation. In these circumstances, the interested parties could quickly deny that NATO had anything to do with the entire operation, because the Poles put themselves at risk alone. Some American strategists might find that such a risk is worth taking.

Thanks to the actions of the Polish government, it is good that we do not have to find out whether this outcome was imaginary or real.

This article was published in March 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.