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Polish offer of fighter jets for Ukraine exposes the West’s spinelessness

Why are the US and UK seemingly unwilling to help transfer planes to Zelensky’s government?

By Harry Lambert

Is the Ukrainian air force on the verge of doubling in size, or not? Last night the Polish foreign ministry released a surprise statement committing to the immediate release of their 28 MiG-29 fighter jets, but offered to send them to the United States not Ukraine — specifically to Ramstein, a US air base in Germany. The proposal blindsided the Americans, who soon poured cold water on it.

A well-placed Polish source described Poland’s statement to me last night as “the Polish government coming out from under the bus where the US tried to throw it”. In the past week the US (and UK) have encouraged Poland to send its jets to Ukraine, while distancing themselves completely from any decision to do so. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said on Sunday that Poland had the “green light” to do so, implying, as the Polish source put it, that “Poland is blocking something, Poland is the obstacle”.

In reality, I am told, the US had no plan to get directly involved in the transfer of planes to Ukraine; they are planning catch-up after a number of US senators were persuaded of the idea by Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, in a video call on Saturday morning. What yesterday’s statement by Poland has usefully revealed is the real obstacle to the delivery of these fighter jets: the backing of other Western governments, who were trying to avoid sharing any risk with Poland. Ben Wallace, the UK Defence Secretary, took pains yesterday morning to emphasise that Poland alone would face the “blowback” from any such transfer — it would, in other words, be nothing to do with the UK.

There is a spinelessness here: either the US and UK (and Germany, whose approval will be necessary for any transfer via Ramstein) are willing to help a Nato ally transfer these planes to Ukraine or they are not. By going public, Poland appears to have shrewdly exposed the gulf between Western words and actions.

The whole episode exemplifies the powerless situation the West is now in — or has put itself in. That powerlessness was felt directly inside the Commons yesterday as a packed house listened to Zelensky’s extraordinary video address to parliament. I was in the chamber, and there was a strangeness to watching Zelensky live as we caught his words in translation on delay. It was historic and unmissable, but after the applause and affection an air of impotence hung over the chamber. As the minister Penny Mordaunt put it to me afterwards, “it’s very difficult to watch what’s happening with people being shelled”, but “Putin’s playbook is to fire on civilians, and we’re going to, I’m too sorry to say, see more of that.” Despite arming Ukraine on the ground — and having done so “before it was fashionable”, as a minister put it to me — there is much that the UK (and the rest of the West) have decided they will not do to help Ukraine. Nevertheless, as shells and missiles continue to hit Ukrainians the pressure is on the US to get Poland’s planes — and whatever else can assist — to Ukraine in haste.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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