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Bipartisan blowback for Biden’s quashing of jet transfer to Ukraine

Administration officials feared the transfer would further inflame Vladimir Putin

Under a deal proposed by Poland, it would have received American F-16 fighters after sending its own Russian-made jets to Ukraine.
Under a deal proposed by Poland, it would have received American F-16 fighters after sending its own Russian-made jets to Ukraine. (Stan Badz/PGA Tour via Getty Images)

Lawmakers on Thursday called on Biden administration officials to “toughen up” and supply the military equipment Ukrainians have been asking for as Russian forces continue to bombard their country.

Specifically, senators of both parties expressed displeasure with President Joe Biden’s decision to quash Poland’s offer to send fighter jets to the Ukrainian military this week by declining to facilitate the transfer.

Under the deal, Poland would have supplied Ukraine with its stock of MiG-29 fighter jets by first transferring them to the American Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where the United States would have sent them on to Ukraine. In turn, the U.S. would have backfilled Poland’s fleet with American-made F-16s. 

Biden killed it, however, with Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby explaining that administration officials viewed the move as “high risk” because it might inflame Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday, senators voiced their frustrations. 

“I don’t understand why we are not working expeditiously to facilitate planes to Ukraine,” said Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., noting that Ukraine needs help to continue to hold off Russian bombers.

Mara Karlin, the assistant secretary of Defense for strategy, told the panel that the Pentagon was focused on providing Ukraine with anti-armor and air defense capabilities, rather than jets. According to Karlin, the Ukrainian military already has “multiple squadrons” of its own fighter jets that it can use. 

“We don’t see significant effectiveness tied to the airplanes,” Karlin said. 

But Ohio Republican Rob Portman questioned why Pentagon officials were making that call for the Ukrainians. 

“They think they need planes. So are you saying the only reason that the Department of Defense is against providing MiGs to Ukraine is that you know better than them what they need to defend themselves?” Portman asked. 

Karlin shifted the blame to Poland, saying that ultimately it was a sovereign decision for Warsaw to make. 

But the administration acknowledges that it fears Russian President Vladimir Putin could see the jet transfer as a provocation. Karlin said the U.S. needs to consider how supplying the jets may escalate tensions, and Kirby on Wednesday said it could anger Moscow, which could view it as an escalation. 

Bipartisan pressure

But despite the administration’s hesitancy to facilitate the transfer of the fighter jets, billions of dollars worth of U.S. military aid are flowing into Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. 

Senators, therefore, did not accept the argument that sending jets was appreciably different.

Utah Republican Mitt Romney said it was time for the U.S. to stop fearing Moscow’s reaction. 

“I don’t understand the logic for not getting the Ukrainians the MiGs immediately. It makes no sense. I believe there’s a sentiment that we’re fearful of what Putin might do. It’s time for him to be fearful of what we might do,” Romney said. 

New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen said the administration’s handling of the fighter jet deal came across as “indecision” and “bickering.” 

“I mean, if there is a good answer for why we’re not doing this, we all can understand that. But we haven’t gotten a good answer to the question,” Shaheen said. 

That view was not limited to Foreign Relations Committee members.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor that sending fighter jets to Ukraine would be a “no-brainer for a confident, assertive and decisive American administration. Instead, it repeatedly seems like the administration’s first instinct is to flinch.”

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