Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s most senior adviser has suggested Poland is willing to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighters as Ukraine’s lobbying for the combat jets steps up only a few days after Germany and the US agreed to send over their tanks.
Andriy Yermak said Ukraine had had “positive signals” from Warsaw in a Telegram posting, although Poland’s prime minister was careful to stress his own country would only act in consultation with Nato allies.
“We coordinate all actions aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defence forces with our Nato partners,” Mateusz Morawiecki told a press conference – where he announced plans to lift his country’s defence spending to 4% of GDP – when asked about the jets. Any possible transfer of fighter jets would come “in full coordination” he added.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said on Monday he would not rule out the delivery of fighter planes to Ukraine but warned against the risk of escalation in the conflict.
“Nothing is excluded in principle,” Macron said after talks with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, when asked about the possibility of sending jets to Kyiv.
Macron set out a series of criteria, including that Ukraine must first make the request, that any arms would “not be escalatory” and that they would “not be likely to hit Russian soil but purely to aid the resistance effort”.
Ukraine began its lobbying campaign for the US-made jets almost immediately after Germany and the US said they would supply Leopard 2 and Abrams tanks, but this time its effort could be successful more quickly.
Joe Biden said late on Monday that the US would not send F-16s to Ukraine, but added that he would be visiting Poland soon. With the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion on 24 February looming, speculation has grown that the US president could visit Europe in a show of support for the alliance backing Ukraine.
The British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, on Monday wryly noted that: “I think what we know about all these demands is that … the initial response is no and it ends up being yes.”
Poland had previously mooted sending its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29s, familiar to Ukraine’s pilots, as long ago as March – but the deal was scuppered by US concerns about the risks of escalation in the early phase of the war. Reports in Poland have suggested Warsaw instead provided spare parts.
But with the Ukraine war now heading to its second year, and with the west having upgraded its weapons supplies with Himars and M270 rocket artillery, Nasams and Patriot air defence systems and most recently tanks, fears of a dangerous Russian response have eased.
After Dutch ministers last week said they would look at a request for the US-made fighter jets with “an open mind”, Ukraine’s military released a social media video praising the Netherlands and the military support it had received. It said the Dutch had “fought a battle against the sea and won” and added “we would really appreciate F-16s”.
Zelenskiy overnight called for western weapons to be supplied more quickly as Russian forces continued attacks on positions across the frontline near the eastern cities of Bakhmut and Donetsk.
“So we have to make time our weapon. We must speed up the events, speed up the supply and opening of new necessary weaponry options for Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address, warning that Russia was making “constant attempts to break through our defence”.
The US thinktank the Institute for the Study of War argued that the incremental pace of western weapons supply – in which new arms have been sent after weeks or months of debate – has held back the Ukrainian defenders.
“Delays in the provision to Ukraine of western long-range fires [artillery] systems, advanced air defense systems, and tanks have limited Ukraine’s ability to take advantage of opportunities for larger counter-offensive operations presented by flaws and failures in Russian military operations,” it warned.
Western tanks are expected to arrive in Ukraine in the next two to three months, after the country’s soldiers are trained to use them. Wallace said a promised squadron of 14 UK Challenger 2s would arrive “probably towards Easter time” in mid-April.
Russian forces have been pounding Bakhmut in the Donbas for months, but in recent days the invaders have opened up a new effort to gain ground around the village of Vuhledar, 30 miles south-west of Donetsk city. The situation in both places, Zelenskiy said, was “very tough”.
Vuhledar is close to the junction with the southern Zaporizhzhia front and considered a hinge point for both sides, but remains held by the Ukrainians despite a claim by Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, to the contrary.
Pushilin said Russian units continued to advance in the direction of Vuhledar, and that units in the town’s eastern part had established themselves while Ukraine’s military said only that the town had come under enemy fire.
Pushilin’s claim was also derided by a high-profile Russian military blogger and one time ally, Igor Girkin, who described the “bravura statements” as “a lie” because Vuhledar had been heavily fortified by the Ukrainian army.
Russian attempts to take fortified positions on the Donetsk front had generally resulted in local tactical successes with “very serious losses”, Girkin added on his Telegram channel, indicating that he was sceptical about the prospects for a breakthrough.
Five civilians were reported killed and 13 wounded across Ukraine after the latest attacks across the country. Three were killed in the Kherson oblast in the south, after Russian forces fired 42 times into the region, including strikes that hit a hospital, a school, a bus station and post office, the local administration said.
France and Australia also announced they would supply Ukraine with several thousand 155mm shells needed for artillery provided by the west since Russia’s invasion, at a summit between defence ministers Sébastien Lecornu and Richard Marles.