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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Mariusz Błaszczak, minister of national defense of Poland, shake hands during a visit to Powidz Air Base, Poland, on Feb. 18, 2022.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Mariusz Błaszczak, minister of national defense of Poland, shake hands during a visit to Powidz Air Base, Poland, on Feb. 18, 2022. (Agustin Montanez/U.S. National Guard)

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon on Wednesday rejected a plan offered by Poland to donate its fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine to help beat back the Russian invasion because the risks of such a venture outweigh the benefits.

“The intelligence community has assessed the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

The assessment follows Poland’s offer Tuesday to donate all of its MiG-29 fighter jets to Ramstein Air Base in Germany “and place them at the disposal of the government of the United States” and urged “other NATO allies — owners of MiG-29 jets — to act in the same vein.”

The Polish Defense Ministry on Tuesday released the public announcement of its offer without coordinating first with the Defense Department, a senior defense official said Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday called Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak in part to explain why the U.S. rejected his ministry’s offer.

“Secretary Austin thanked the minister for Poland's willingness to continue to look for ways to assist Ukraine but expressed that we do not support the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force at this time, and therefore have no desire to see them in our custody, either,” Kirby said.

Aside from the “high-risk” nature of the jet transfer, the U.S. believes fighter jets are not among “the systems that [Ukrainian forces] need most to defeat Russian aggression,” Kirby said, noting the Ukrainian Air Force still has “several squadrons of fully mission-capable aircraft.”

“We assess that adding aircraft to the Ukrainian inventory is not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capabilities,” he said. “Therefore, we believe that the gain from transferring those MiG-29s is low.”

Instead, the U.S., whose European Command is at the center of coordinating international weapons donations to Ukraine and assessing what’s needed to help them fight Russian forces, believes the most-needed weapons involves “anti-armor and air-defense” capabilities, Kirby said.

“We, along with other nations, continue to send them these weapons and we know that they're being used with great effect [to] slow Russian advance in the north,” he said.

Kirby said the fact that Russia still does not control the Ukrainian airspace despite having surface-to-air missiles throughout the country “is evidence alone of that.”

“Their effectiveness has been limited due to Ukrainian strategic operational and tactical ground-based air defense systems, surface-to-air missiles and [portable air-defense systems],” he said.

It’s important that the U.S. “be careful about every decision” in responding to the war in Ukraine, so “we aren't making the potential for escalation worse,” Kirby said. “That's not only not good for the United States and our national security should this conflict escalate even further, but it's certainly not going to be good for the Ukrainian people to have what is already a destructive and terrible war.”

Still, a senior defense official on Wednesday said the U.S. would not stop Poland or any other country from donating fighter jets to Ukraine.

“It's not the United States' position to take a position on what another sovereign nation might be talking to Ukraine about what to provide,” the official said. “If Poland or any other nation wants to have that discussion with Ukraine, we respect that process."

In the past year, the U.S. has sent $1 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-tank rocket systems, grenade launchers and more than 2,000 tons of ammunition.

The U.S. on Wednesday also dispatched two Patriot missile batteries to Poland in a “purely defensive deployment being conducted proactively to counter any potential threat to U.S. and allied forces in NATO territory” as Russia has launched more than 720 missiles since the start of the war on Feb. 24, the official said.

“It is 100% in keeping with the seriousness with which we take our [NATO common defense] commitments,” the official said.

Some of those Russian munitions have not been precision-guided, “which of course just raises the likelihood and the chances of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure,” Kirby said.

However, he also said all those Russian missiles have been targeted at sites in eastern Ukraine, far from Poland’s border.

The Patriot missile batteries arrived in Poland on Wednesday morning from the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command at Rhine Ordnance Barracks in Germany, the official said.

The U.S. Special Operations Command Europe also Wednesday announced it opened its first headquarters in Albania. While the project was first announced in January, the move marks the first time that the U.S. has made a permanent position change in Europe since the war started.

The headquarters’ launch “came at the proper moment, at the culmination of the insecurity due to the gloomy situation on the Continent after Russian aggression,” Albanian Defense Minister Niko Peleshi said Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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