Slovakia has said it will join Poland in sending its Soviet-designed MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, widening the west’s military contributions aimed at bolstering the country’s air defences against a barrage of Russian missile attacks.
Prime Minister Eduard Heger said in a tweet on Friday that his country would send 13 MiG-29s to Ukraine, following Warsaw’s announcement that it would dispatch at least four of its own aircraft. The planes will be of use as additional aircraft and spare parts for Ukraine’s existing MiG fleet, but they fall short of Kyiv’s demand for western fighter jets such as the US-made F-16s.
Before this week’s announcements, both Warsaw and Bratislava had said that the delivery of MiG-29 jets could only be made as part of a “coalition” of western countries, and backed up by pledges from other Nato states to replace those jets with western aircraft.
Washington welcomed both Poland and Slovakia’s announcements, but the White House said it had not changed its mind on whether to send F-16s. The Biden administration has argued that sending them would be too costly and that they would take too long to reach the battlefield.
“It doesn’t have any impact or effect on our own sovereign decision making when it comes to F-16s,” Kirby said Friday.
Ukrainian forces know how to use the MiG-29s already, he said, and the US expects they “would be additive to the fighter aircraft capabilities that the Ukrainian air force has at their disposal.”
Polish officials hope that their announcement and that of Slovakia will be a “mid-step” towards convincing Washington and other countries with more advanced fighter jets to change their minds. Several European countries have F-16s, but sending those to Ukraine would also require US approval.
A Polish official said that while there was no explicit promise from Washington for new aircraft to replace the MiGs to be sent to Ukraine, Poland expected Washington would look more favourably upon its longer-term request for new US-made jets. The official added that if deployed to Ukraine, F-16s could play an important role in defending the country, given that its current air defences struggle to shoot down all incoming Russian missiles.
Responding to the Polish and Slovak announcements, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that they illustrated an increased “direct involvement” of western countries in the war. He played down the impact of the additional MiGs supplied to Ukraine, saying they “could not affect the outcome” of the conflict.
“Of course, during the course of the ‘special military operation’, all this equipment will be subject to destruction,” Peskov added. “One has the feeling that these countries are engaged in the disposal of old and unnecessary equipment.”
Slovakia had also reached an agreement with the US on deliveries of military material worth about $700mn, the government said. Arms deliveries to Ukraine are being reimbursed by the EU — in Slovakia’s case, up to €200mn.
The Slovak MiG decision comes at a tense time in domestic politics and was met with strong opposition within the Slovak parliament. Heger is leading a caretaker administration after his government lost a parliamentary vote of confidence in December. The country will hold snap parliamentary elections in September.
Heger’s decision was eased by the fact that Poland made the first move, but was risky since Heger bypassed parliament, providing “perfect ammunition for part of the radical opposition in Slovakia to go the streets”, said Milan Nič, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
In recent weeks, opposition lawmakers had insisted that a caretaker prime minister did not have the authority to hand over fighter jets without parliament’s approval. “For Poland, this is a fairly consensual decision while in Slovakia it has been exactly the opposite,” Nič said. In Bratislava, “this comes at a very fragile moment, not only for the government but also for the whole pro-western and pro-Ukraine camp.”