Ukraine war: Poland’s failed deal to supply MiG-29s shows Nato’s fear of escalation

The Conversation

The Ukraine war has become to some extent a proxy conflict between Nato and Russia. The American president, Joe Biden – supported by other Nato leaders – made it clear even before the invasion that the US and Nato would not become involved in the conflict militarily. Instead, Biden sought to deter Russia with the threat of severe economic sanctions.

But as the invasion and occupation of Ukraine has continued, Nato has been drawn ever more deeply into the conflict with the provision of lethal military hardware which is enabling Ukraine to mount a serious defence and inflict significant casualties among Russian forces. US officials have estimated that up to 6,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, including some very high-level commanders.

Equipment losses are hard to verify, but the Oryx website, which seeks to monitor the details, claims that Russia has lost 1,055 Russian fighting vehicles (tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers) so far – some destroyed, some captured, some non-operational.

Weapons provided by Nato countries include machine guns, pistols, ammunition and sniper rifles. Nato is also providing Ukrainian defence forces with protective equipment.

The most important elements of the flood of weapons into Ukraine are armour-piercing FGM-148 Javelin and Stinger surface-to-air missiles (now supplemented by UK Starstreak air defence missiles). The equipment is stored at the Polish border and transported into Ukraine. All other routes are now deemed non-viable.

The MiG-29 deal

So far there is no evidence of a determined effort by Russia to cut the resupply routes into Ukraine. The reasons are unclear but it may be because Russia is struggling to achieve its tactical objectives, or that Russia is hesitating to engage in military actions that may involve Nato forces directly.

The debate about a “no-fly zone” has indicated the limits of western military support for Ukraine. The enforcement of such a zone would require Nato forces to engage with Russian fighter planes and air defence forces both inside and outside Ukraine. This would be a step of escalation that would breach the limits of the conflict as Nato has defined them, for now.

An audacious Polish proposal was to provide Ukraine with 29 MiG-29 fighter planes. Ukrainian pilots would be able to operate such planes given their training on Russian-made aircraft. Poland approached the US, suggesting the MiG-29s could be transferred to the US Ramstein airbase in Germany to be prepared for combat inside Ukraine.

How would the deal work?

The first question is obviously about the logistics of such a transfer. For example, the fighter jets could be made ready at Ramstein (including repainting in Ukrainian colours) and flown to a country not a member of either Nato or the EU – such as Kosovo – where Ukrainian pilots would take possession of them and fly them to Ukraine. Poland indicated they would want to receive US-made F-16s in compensation. The US described this deal as “untenable”.

Even if such an operation were possible, it would still be hampered by the difficulties of Ukraine providing a base. Russian forces have systematically targeted Ukrainian airfields.

In particular, the Vynnitsia airport which was dual-use facility for military and civil aviation was destroyed on day 11 of the war. Ukraine’s Starokostiantyniv military airbase in western Ukraine has also been destroyed by long-range high-precision weapons.

As Ukrainian airports are systematically targeted, the Ukrainian airforce is struggling to operate – although Ukrainian planes are still flying and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are carrying out attacks against Russian formations. But finding a base for additional aircraft may be a challenge, which means they might have to be based and serviced outside Ukraine. The military usefulness of supplying MiG-29s has also been questioned. Russia’s airforce has been deployed rather sparingly over Ukraine so far, but its planes are more modern than the Polish MiGs.

The attacks on the Vinnytsia airfield were carried out by strategic bombers, the nuclear-capable Tu-95 and Tu-160, launching X-101 missiles with a range of 5,500km while positioned over the Black Sea. This demonstrates that Russia can launch air-to-surface attacks against Ukraine without even entering Ukrainian airspace.

So, the benefits of deploying relatively small numbers of additional MiG-29 would be extremely limited. The most potent weapons Ukraine can use against Russian aircraft are ground-based air defence systems rather than combat aircraft.

Risk of escalation

The Americans also fear that even if the MiG-29 were to be flown by Ukrainian pilots, the provision of such aircraft would be considered an unacceptable Nato escalation which could precipitate a widening of the conflict. The deal was always going to fail.

But the logic of this argument is open to challenge, since the limits of escalation are quite arbitrary. The fact is that Nato is already very deeply involved in the conflict. Nato personnel are indirectly engaged by the provision of substantial quantities of equipment as well as intelligence and reconnaissance.

The US has also provided nine Island-class patrol boats as well as five Mi-17 transport helicopters – so the boundaries of what might be “permissible” are being stretched daily.

There is no doubt that the provision of military support to Ukraine has been an important contribution to enabling Ukraine to slow down the advance of Russian forces and fundamentally derail Russian strategy. But it is not clear that this is enough to prevent Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian cities and the removal of the Ukrainian government – though this looks as if it will take much longer than originally planned.

Once Russia manages to cut off all access routes into Ukraine, it will no longer be possible to resupply Ukrainian forces. Thus the question of whether to accept Russia’s increasingly naked aggression, or up Nato and western assistance to Ukraine in a more material way and risk escalation, is becoming more urgent by the day.

Christoph Bluth received funding from the Volkswagen Stiftung to research security in the former Soviet space.