BRUSSELS — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hopes that Western backers will provide modern fighter jets — what he calls “wings for freedom” — have been met with discouragement, if not outright rejection, from Ukraine’s leading weapons suppliers.
In appeals to European leaders during his whirlwind tour to Britain, France and the European Union last week, Zelensky urged immediate the delivery of aircraft, preferably U.S.-made F-16s whose use is widespread among NATO allies, saying the fourth-generation fighter jet could end the war quickly.
Kyiv has been asking for advanced air power since last spring, so far to no avail. But experience has taught the Ukrainians that a “no” from the West is often not as firm as it initially appears. Western heavy artillery, precision missile launchers, sophisticated air defense and heavy tanks — all of which were deemed impossible to supply — are now on the battlefield or at least pledged for delivery.
But in statements following Zelensky’s tour, leaders in Europe and beyond have said that the transfer of fighter jets is not a current priority. It “will take time,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters here Monday.
Stoltenberg spoke before a Tuesday meeting in Brussels of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the coalition of more than 50 countries providing security assistance to Kyiv. It will be followed late Tuesday and Wednesday by a separate gathering of NATO defense ministers.
Conversations at those meetings, Stoltenberg said, will focus on two things. “One is speed, urgency” in anticipation of a Russian offensive he said was already underway and Ukrainian hopes of launching its own counteroffensive against Moscow’s occupying forces.
“Whatever opinion may be about aircraft … my priority is to make sure pledges are made for armor, battle tanks. … Every day counts,” Stoltenberg said.
“It’s important to have constant consultation among allies about what new platforms they should provide.” Once the pledges are given, the second priority, he said, is “to ensure that all systems pledged are delivered and work as they should.”
Others have been more direct in saying that while jet fighters will be part of Ukraine’s armed force of the future, now is not the time for them.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said during Zelensky’s visit that current discussions on support for Ukraine could include fighter jets, and that Britain was beginning a training program for Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard aircraft.
But foreign secretary Ben Wallace, speaking at a conference in Rome late last week, said the provision of aircraft was a long-term prospect. “This is not a simple case of towing an aircraft to the border,” Wallace told the BBC. “Britain knows what Ukraine needs and is very happy to help in many ways.”
The same effect, however, “can be done through a different way, and without taking months, which of course gifting fighter jets would take,” he added, mentioning air cover provided by long-range missiles and drones.
French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking Friday after Zelensky’s address to a European Union summit, said he was “not ruling anything out,” but that the provision of jets “doesn’t correspond to today’s requirements.”
“It is essential the allies favor the most useful equipment” and “the fastest” to arrive, he said.
U.S. defense officials in the past have said that Ukraine has enough Soviet-era aircraft and sending more would be time-consuming and difficult. When asked early this month if the United States would provide F-16s, President Biden was succinct. “No,” he said.
But the administration says it will not stand in the way of others. “If a NATO nation or even a non-NATO nation wants to provide capabilities like fighter aircraft to Ukraine, that’s certainly their decision to make,” John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, told reporters Friday in Washington, in what has become a standard reply to questions about equipment the United States does not intend to supply imminently.
At the same time, Kirby said, “one would assume that if you’re going to introduce a system into a — into a military that they have no experience with, that there’s going to have to be some training that goes along with that.”
Allies have also expressed concern that the provision of fighter aircraft would be a major escalation in aid to Ukraine that could provoke a Russian response toward NATO. “We take these decisions carefully and we do it thoughtfully,” a spokesman for Sunak said following Zelensky’s visit. “We are aware of the potential escalatory risks.”
Russia has already threatened a “military” response to any provision of high-end aircraft.
Even the most forward-leaning of Ukraine’s suppliers has been hesitant. Polish President Andrjez Duda, told the BBC that his country’s air force has fewer than 50 F-16s, and sending any of them to Ukraine would pose a “serious problem.” Additionally, he said, the planes have a “serious need for maintenance,” so it’s “not enough just to send a few planes.”
While in Europe, Zelensky suggested that he had already heard from some E.U. leaders that they were ready to supply aircraft. But the only firm offer made public came on Friday from Slovakia, where Prime Minister Eduard Heger said that he had received an official request from Zelensky to deliver MiG-29 fighter jets in the Slovakian arsenal.
“Now, because this official request has come, the process of negotiations can be started,” Heger said, according to Reuters. Those negotiations, he said, would be both internal and with the European Commission, which he expected would reimburse the cost and perhaps allow Slovakia to purchase upgrades.
But as Kyiv awaits the anticipated Russian offensive, Europe’s leaders aren’t leaning in on jets. Macron, Stoltenberg and others emphasized that among Ukraine’s most urgent need at the moment is ammunition, something that is in increasingly short supply in the West.
“The war in Ukraine is consuming an enormous amount of ammunition … bigger than the rate of [NATO member] production,” Stoltenberg said. “Yes, we have a challenge. We have a problem. But problems are there to be solved,” he said, noting that NATO has just completed an alliance-wide review of ammunition stockpiles and is working with defense industries to ramp up production.
Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.