Why Ukraine is finally getting new fighter jets from NATO

Poland and Slovakia are sending more than 2 dozen MiG-29s to Ukraine to replenish the country’s pre-existing fleet.

A Raftor F22 from US Air Force, F 16 fighter jets and MiG-29 from the Polish Air Force in the air.
A U.S. Air Force Raptor F-22, F-16 fighter jets and MiG-29 from the Polish Air Force take part in a NATO Air Force military drill on Oct.12, 2022, in Lask, Poland. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Ukraine is now getting warplanes, although not the coveted U.S.-made F-16s it has been pushing for.

In what counts as another milestone in the West’s willingness to increase security assistance to the war-ravaged nation, Poland and Slovakia, both NATO members, announced last week they will jointly be donating their entire inventory of Soviet-era MiG-29s to Ukraine.

Speaking alongside newly elected Czech President Petr Pavel in a press conference in Warsaw on Thursday, Polish President Andrzej Duda announced that four fully functional Polish MiG-29 fighter jets would be supplied to Ukraine in “the next few days.”

“As the West, we have two red lines,” Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, told Yahoo News. “We don't want Ukraine to attack Russian territory, and we don't want a direct clash between the Russian army and those of NATO members. Everything below that threshold is fair game.”

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, the Poles have some 28 MiG-29s in their inventory, but it is not known how many of them are still airworthy. The remainder of the Polish fleet would follow after the planes had been “serviced and prepared,” Duda said. The Polish MiG-29s are scheduled to be backfilled by new-generation American F-35s and South Korean Golden Eagles.

Polish Air Force MiG-29 aircraft fly in an arrow formation above four flagpoles with the Polish flag.
Polish Air Force MiG-29 aircraft put on an air display during the military parade fot the Armed Forces Day on Aug. 15, 2015, in Warsaw. (Karol Serewis/Getty Images Poland/Getty Images)

“Poland has been a very strong supporter of Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion,” Yuriy Sak, adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, told Yahoo News, adding that the donated aircraft “will be used very effectively by our air force.”

Sak cautioned that while such deliveries have enabled the Ukrainian Air Force to maintain their current capability, what the country really requires is newer-generation fighter jets, like the F-16. “These are much more capable aircraft, and much more universally compatible with NATO munitions,” Sak said. ”Such aircraft will allow us to conduct our counteroffensive and protect our skies much more effectively.”

Even though Ukraine has yet to receive the F-16 fighter jets it wants, Poland has yet again created a dam break in Western security assistance. It was the first country to send Soviet-era T-72 main battle tanks in 2022, months before other NATO allies agreed to dispatch newer Abrams, Challengers and Leopard IIs. To date, Poland has supplied around 330 tanks of various types to Kyiv, far more than any other country.

“Since last year, the Polish policy of providing weapons to Ukraine has evolved, and we’re in a completely different place now,” Sławomir Dębski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told Yahoo News. “Self-imposed redlines are being crossed one after the other,” Dębski added.

Two Polish Air Force Russian made MiG-29s fly above and below two Polish Air Force U.S. made F-16 fighter jets.
Two Polish Air Force Russian-made MiG-29s fly above and below two Polish Air Force U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets at the Air Show in Radom, Poland, on Aug. 27, 2011. (Alik Keplicz/AP Photo)

The transfer of Poland’s MiGs to Ukraine was originally meant to take place back in March 2022. The Polish government offered to transfer the jets to the United States and let Washington officially give them to Ukraine. This arrangement would have allowed the Polish government to claim they were technically not supplying the jets to Kyiv themselves, while receiving replacement American aircraft.

The announced transfer of the Polish aircraft marks the first time Ukraine has been directly and openly supplied with fighter jets by a NATO ally. Officially, Kyiv had previously only been supplied with “spare parts,” a program of deliveries that started in April 2022. John Kirby, then the Pentagon press secretary, confirmed that such deliveries had enabled the Ukrainian Air Force to get “quite a number” — thought to be around 20 — of previously inoperable aircraft back in the sky.

Later reporting revealed that these deliveries of “spare parts” had included entire airframes that had been disassembled, shipped across the Ukrainian border, and then reassembled. These deliveries were operated under a veil of secrecy, as Moscow had frequently threatened repercussions against countries supplying ex-Soviet hardware to Ukraine.

In a further sign that Moscow’s threats have lost much of their bite, the day after the Polish announcement, Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced that 13 Slovakian MiG-29s would also be donated to Ukraine.

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger at the microphone.
Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard Heger addresses a press conference as part of the European People's Party at a meeting of the EU Parliament in Vienna on Dec. 8, 2022. (Alex Halada/APA/AFP via Getty Images)

As with the Polish deal, the transfer of Slovakian MiG-29s had been discussed for a while. Heger had originally suggested the donation of Slovakia’s jets back in July 2022, as part of a deal in which the Czech Republic would assist with policing Slovakian airspace before the donated jets could be replaced by more advanced American provided F-16s.

It’s hard to know just how many aircraft the Poles have or are sending to Ukraine. They were first supplied with 12 MiG-29s as an ally of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Twenty-two additional East German MiG-29s were transferred to Poland. Fourteen of these were refurbished and pressed into service; the remainder were cannibalized for spare parts. Ten more aircraft were transferred to Poland by the newly independent Czech Republic in 1995.

The Ukrainian Air Force already operates a large number of MiG-29s of its own, meaning that Ukrainian pilots and ground crew are already well accustomed to operating them. Its current fleet consists of five tactical aviation brigades operating MiG-29s and Su-27s, another Soviet-era model. The Polish and Slovakian aircraft will likely be able to be pushed into service as soon as they arrive.

Both models of aircraft have been modified to fire sophisticated NATO munitions they were never designed to deploy, most notably the HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile), which is designed to home in on the radar emissions of air defense systems. Gen. James Hecker, commander of United States Air Forces in Europe and Africa, indicated that the Ukrainian Air Force was now also equipped with U.S.-made guided bombs.

A Ukrainian Su-27 UB fighter (Combat Trainer), painted in various shades of light blue, takes off.
A Ukrainian Su-27 UB fighter (Combat Trainer) takes off on Oct. 12, 2018, during an air force exercise on Starokostyantyniv military airbase. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

“Getting more MiGs will allow the Ukrainian military to go on the offensive again, as extra planes and spare parts will allow them to operate at a higher tempo,” Jahara “Franky” Matisek, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, told Yahoo News. “This will allow them to take the initiative in places along the eastern front against trenches and hardened positions, in unison with combined arms maneuver. New airpower is crucial for punching through vulnerable Russian points.”

There is also the sense in Kyiv that the open donation of fighter jets will finally break the diplomatic logjam and so that more advanced Western models are finally supplied to Ukraine.

“Dear Dutch, Swedes, French, British, Germans, Finns, Americans, what about you?” Ukrainian parliamentarian Inna Sovsun posted on Twitter, after the news of the Slovakian pledge broke. “F-16, F/A-18, Eurofighter, JAS39, Rafale and Tornado would help us win faster!”