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Ukraine has its tanks. Now he wants jet fighters too – POLITICO

LONDON — For Ukraine, the struggle to secure Western battle tanks was just the beginning.

With American-built Abrams and German-made Leopards now heading to the front line after months of wrangling between Western allies, military planners in Kyiv are turning their attention to what they see as the logical next step in their efforts to repel the Russian invaders – the expeditions of modern fighter aircraft.

Conversations with more than half a dozen Western military officials and diplomats confirm that an internal debate over supplying Ukraine with fighter jets is already underway, pushed by Ukrainian officials with the support of Warmongering Baltic states.

“The next natural step would be the fighters,” said a diplomat from a northern European country.

The debate is likely to prove even more contentious than the dispute over tank supplies. In Europe, several officials and diplomats said their governments no longer viewed the idea as a no-start, but fears of escalation remained high.

Washington told Kyiv that the supply of planes was “banned, for the time being,” the diplomat quoted above said, but added: “There is a red line there – but last summer, we had a red line on the HIMARS [multiple rocket launchers], and it moved. Then it was battle tanks, and things are moving.

A second senior envoy from a European power also pointed to the speed at which the Western arms supply is intensifying. “Fighters are completely inconceivable today,” they said, “but we could have that discussion two, three weeks from now.”

Defense ministers from Ukraine’s allies are due to hold a new summit next month at the US military base in Ramstein in southwestern Germany, where aviation and air support are expected be a key element.

Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told the Dutch parliament last week that his cabinet would consider providing F-16 fighter jets, if requested by Kyiv. “We are open-minded, there are no taboos,” he said.

This follows comments last month by Slovak Foreign Minister Rastislav Kacher, who told Interfax-Ukraine his government was “ready” to deliver Soviet-era MiG-29 fighters to Kyiv, and was talking with NATO partners and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on how to do this.

Other senior politicians are much less enthusiastic. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday ruled out deliveries of fighter jets, citing the need to prevent further military escalation.

“There will be no deliveries of fighter jets to Ukraine,” he said. “This was clarified very early on, including from [the] The American President.”

Some officials believe that next month’s discussion at Ramstein will therefore focus more on developing a contingency plan, in case fighter jets are urgently needed at some point, rather than on concluding an agreement on short-term deliveries.

Ukraine’s European allies anticipate a conflict that could last another three to five years or more, and there are fears that the West is close to the limit of what can be delivered without triggering an extreme response from Moscow.

Regular climbing

Early last year, Western allies agreed to an “unwritten policy” not to supply Ukraine with a full set of weapons immediately after the invasion, lest “we trigger a large Russia’s response,” said a third senior diplomat from another European government. .

The idea was that the West should provide support gradually, assessing the Russian response at each stage.

“Many Western countries believe that if we were to provide Ukraine with all the equipment they ask for [for] in the first phase of the war there would be a strong Russian reaction, including nuclear. You can call it a process of getting [Putin] used to it,” the diplomat said.

The strategy has been a slow but steady upward trend in Western support, from anti-tank javelins and man-portable air defense systems such as the Stingers, to HIMARS and, more recently, Patriot surface-to-air missiles, tanks and vehicles. shielded.

The delivery of the planes is therefore “only a matter of time”, predicted the same diplomat.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly met with senior US officials in Washington last week to discuss additional military support for Ukraine beyond the supply of tanks. Speaking afterwards, Cleverly declined to say whether those conversations covered the supply of fighter jets, cluster bombs or long-range missiles.

“I’m not going to speculate on the nature of future military support,” he said. “Our support has evolved as the battle has evolved and the demands of the Ukrainians have evolved.”

As an island nation, however, Britain would be more reluctant to send planes to Ukraine than to send tanks and other ground military equipment, British officials say. There are also fears that public support could wane amid further escalation.

European diplomats agree that the West will want to exhaust all other air support options first, including more attack drones and possibly long-range missiles. Washington also recently approved a shipment of Cold War-era Zuni unguided rockets that the Ukrainian military could launch from its Soviet-era MiG planes.

But these envoys also pointed to recent US decisions as evidence that Washington is gearing up for a plane talk.

In July, the United States House of Representatives approved $100 million to train Ukrainian pilots to fly American fighter jets, and in October Ukraine announced that a group of several dozen pilots had been selected to train on Western fighter planes.

In August, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary for defense policy, told reporters that “it’s not inconceivable that in the future Western planes could be part of the mix” of weapons supplied to the US. ‘Ukraine.

Yuriy Sak, adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Renizkov, said Kyiv’s priority after tanks was to secure jets and that the “apologies” of its allies were not insurmountable. He is convinced that the West is now convinced of the need to carefully but constantly increase the sophistication of its military gifts.

He said the Ukrainian Air Force had set its sights on US F-16 and F-15 aircraft, but was also open to others. The majority of US-owned F-15s and F-16s are deployed in other regions, including the Indo-Pacific.

“There are nearly 50 countries currently using F-15s,” Sak said. “I don’t believe for a second that Ukraine doesn’t deserve fighter jets.”

Logistics nightmare

Sending planes, however, would be a serious logistical undertaking for Ukraine’s allies.

The F-15 and F-16 require long, high-quality runways, which Ukraine lacks. Experts say it would be easy for Russia to spot any attempts to build operational bases and hit them.

American F-18 fighters or Swedish-made Gripens would be more suitable, said Justin Bronk, senior airpower researcher at UK think tank RUSI, because they can take off from shorter airstrips and require less aircraft. interview. But both jets are relatively rare.

Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson told POLITICO on Wednesday that Sweden had “no immediate plans to send the Gripen to Ukraine.”

Other fighter jets, such as French-made Rafales, may require significant numbers of Western civilians on the ground in Ukraine to repair the aircraft and prepare it for flights. These people would automatically become targets for Russian attacks.

As an island nation, Britain is reportedly more reluctant to send planes than it has been to offer tanks and other land-based capabilities, and officials fear British public opinion is not up to speed. edge.

But when asked whether the donation of jets would constitute an escalation, a French government official pointed out that Ukraine had already received “super violent” weapons from the West, such as Caesar cannons.

“We say anything we send must be for defensive purposes – but once the equipment has been delivered, it’s in their hands,” the official said. “The Argument [that you would need NATO officers in Ukraine] was the same for the Patriots. We sent them anyway.

Clea Caulcutt and Lili Bayer contributed reporting from Paris and Brussels.

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