The US is working with Warsaw on a deal to provide Ukraine with Polish fighter jets as Kyiv ratchets up the pressure on the west to help boost its air force capabilities so it can repel Russian aerial attacks.
The deal would involve Ukraine receiving Russian-made warplanes from Poland, which would then be given American F-16s by the US to refill its stocks. It comes amid fears Russia will increase air strikes given the slow progress of parts of its ground campaign.
The White House said it was negotiating with Poland and consulting other Nato allies but that there were “a number of challenging practical questions, including how the planes could actually be transferred from Poland to Ukraine”.
“We are also working on the capabilities we could provide to backfill Poland if it decided to transfer planes to Ukraine,” a White House spokesperson said.
A Polish official said: “Poland is not in a state of war with Russia, but it is not an impartial country, because it supports Ukraine as the victim of aggression. It considers, however, that all military matters must be a decision of Nato as a whole.”
The deal emerged following a day of intense pressure from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his foreign minister, who both said if Nato will not institute a no-fly zone over the country then it should provide its air force with fighter jets.
The Financial Times reported earlier on Saturday that Zelensky had made an emotional plea for the US to give Poland and other eastern European allies F-16 fighter jets, enabling those countries to then send Russian-made warplanes to Ukraine.
Ukrainian pilots need Russian-made aircraft because those are the systems they have been trained to fly.
In a call with almost 300 US lawmakers on Saturday morning, Zelensky said Ukraine badly needed more aircraft, particularly after Nato decided against creating a no-fly zone because it would risk a broader conflict with Russia, according to people familiar with the call.
Washington is working to provide more support to Ukraine and this week started sending anti-aircraft stinger missiles, the same weapons that the US provided the Mujahedeen to repel the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
The White House said President Joe Biden spoke with Zelensky on Saturday evening and noted that the US was increasing “security, humanitarian, and economic assistance to Ukraine and is working closely with Congress to secure additional funding.”
One US lawmaker who took part in the earlier zoom call said Zelensky had expressed appreciation for the stingers, but said they were insufficient because they were not able to fly high enough to take out some Russian aircraft.
The US and allies have supplied a range of weapons to Ukraine. But they are worried Putin would view the provision of warplanes as an escalation, which he might interpret as Nato effectively entering the conflict against Russia. Earlier on Saturday, Putin said Moscow would consider the institution of a no-fly zone by any third party as “participation in the armed conflict”.
Polish president Andrzej Duda has previously said sending planes would be tantamount to interfering in the conflict.
One person familiar with the situation said the Biden administration had previously indicated to Poland that the US could not provide it with American fighter jets. The White House denied the US had opposed the idea to send Russian-made fighters to Ukraine, saying it was “a sovereign decision for any country to make”.
Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democratic congressman who participated in the zoom call with Zelensky, told the Financial Times there was broad bipartisan support in Congress to find creative solutions. He pointed to the example of the US passing the Lend-Lease Act during the second world war to make it easier to provide countries with war supplies and weapons.
“We have to start looking at analogies to the Lend-Lease Act in terms of a 2022 version of it for Ukraine,” Boyle said. “There is . . . popular American support for doing everything we can to arm the Ukrainians. Politically speaking, this is a relatively easy lift.”
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba made a similar plea during a meeting on Saturday with his US counterpart Antony Blinken along the Poland-Ukraine border, saying it was “no secret that the highest demand that we have is in fighting jets, attack aircraft, and air defence systems”.
Kuleba added: “If we lose the skies, there will be much, much more blood on the ground, and that will be the blood of civilians.”
Asked if the US would consider the request, Blinken said “we are talking about and working on everything”, adding that US defence secretary Lloyd Austin was working closely with his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov.
Zelensky opened the call with US lawmakers with a 20-minute plea for more American support. At one point during his emotional presentation, he paused to ask one of the American lawmakers to mute themselves.
“Senator Rick Scott, please mute your mic,” said the Ukrainian leader, who was dressed in his customary T-shirt, according to one person on the call.
Additional reporting by James Shotter