A tough announcement to stomach on a day when Russian jets were responsible for this atrocity…
— Ostap Yarysh (@OstapYarysh) March 9, 2022
…but insofar as the post-Trump right still cares about “ending endless wars,” the easiest way to end America’s role in one that stands a decent chance of becoming endless is not to participate in the first place.
Or rather, not to participate more than we already are … which is a lot. Ben Sasse asked a fair question last night after the Pentagon turned down Poland’s offer of MiG-29 fighters for Ukraine. What’s the difference between supplying Ukraine with jets to shoot down Russian fighters and supplying them with anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Russian fighters? What’s the difference between supplying Ukraine over land across the Polish border with weapons to destroy Russian planes and supplying Ukraine with jets stationed at NATO airbases, something the White House and Germany are skittish about?
The rules regarding what amounts to participating in the conflict and what doesn’t seem a bit hazy.
But I suppose that’s John Kirby’s point in the clip below. We’re trying to balance risk and reward in a dangerous, uncertain environment. The sweet spot is supplying Ukraine with weapons that’ll make a major difference on the battlefield yet not so much of a difference that Russia will feel obliged to retaliate against NATO. Will 20+ more jets make a major difference? Actually, no, Kirby says. Ukraine still has several squadrons of jets capable of flying and we continue to provide them with anti-aircraft weapons to neutralize Russian air attacks. They’re doing okay with that so far:
⚡️Russia loses 56 planes, 82 helicopters in 2 weeks of fighting.
The numbers were released by the Ukrainian armed forces. The Ukrainian losses aren’t disclosed.
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) March 9, 2022
The difference between Stingers, Javelins, and MiG-29s may be arbitrary — essentially a matter of range — but if observing that difference helps hold down the risk of escalation without seriously degrading Ukrainian capabilities, it’s prudent.
Is Biden going to eat a mountain of sh*t for his show of “weakness” here, though? You’d better believe it. Watch, then read on.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby pours cold water on the transfer of Polish jets to America to give to Ukraine:
“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.” pic.twitter.com/SSgUOBpwZh
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) March 9, 2022
And so the clock begins to run: How long before public outrage at the White House’s refusal to supply Zelensky forces Biden to change his mind? Over/under is three days. Republicans hawks are already flogging him over it:
Putin is bombing maternity hospitals. Send Ukraine the planes. https://t.co/QurzA7PINl
— Rep. Liz Cheney (@RepLizCheney) March 9, 2022
There’s no doubt that Putin is grateful for Joe Biden’s inexcusable decision to block Ukraine from getting Polish MiG-29s.
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) March 9, 2022
Would the MiGs make a difference? Unlikely, says the AP: “The handover of Poland’s 28 Soviet-made MiG-29s would signal Western resolve to do more for Ukraine. Militarily, however, the number of planes offered would make it unlikely to be a game-changer. And MiG-29s are inferior to more sophisticated Russian aircraft and could be easy prey for Russian pilots and Russian missiles.” The Pentagon might also be making a hard calculation that it’s a matter of time before Russia overruns Ukraine, jets or no jets. Their military is making progress, however slowly. Forces are assembling outside Kiev. If 20+ Polish jets are transferred to Ukraine at a moment when the Russian offensive seems inexorable then we’re not really transferring those jets to Ukraine. We’re transferring them to Russia.
The clusterf**k between the U.S. and Poland over the jets is a big enough deal to warrant diplomacy at the executive level, with Kamala Harris dispatched to Poland today to meet with the country’s president tomorrow. “The world will be watching how Harris handles this delicate moment,” Politico breathlessly explained this morning. “If she unlocks a U.S.-Poland-Ukraine transfer deal, it would be a monumental foreign policy success for someone who has few to speak of in her time as a senator and VP.” The fact that Kirby has publicly ruled out the idea suggests that Harris isn’t going there to “unlock” anything but rather to give the Poles the courtesy of explaining in person why the White House isn’t comfortable with this particular form of escalation.
There may also be a little light scolding from her about allies being careful not to take each other by surprise:
The Polish government stunned Washington on Tuesday by announcing it was ready to transfer its 28 MiG-29 fighter planes to the U.S., with the understanding that they would be handed over to Ukrainian pilots fighting off the Russian invasion…
After vociferous denials by Warsaw that it was even considering donating MiGs to Ukraine, the offer arrived completely unexpected.
A senior administration official told POLITICO that the U.S. intelligence community and the Defense Department have been opposed to the transfer of the Polish planes to Ukraine, due to the complications in getting them over the border and into the hands of Ukrainian pilots. The Polish government also didn’t consult with their U.S. counterparts before making the announcement.
The Poles are going to scold Harris too. If the U.S. was so firm about not transferring jets to Ukraine, what the hell was America’s top diplomat doing on television a few days ago giving Poland “a green light” to do so?
Extremely sloppy. The administration is undermining a lot of the good reputation it had recovered after the Afghan debacle by (a) being incoherent internally and (b) continued sniping at a vital ally. NSC staff is supposed to stop this kind of thing, so please do. https://t.co/Sn00h6bptg
— Eliot A Cohen (@EliotACohen) March 9, 2022
It’s an embarrassment for NATO, and Zelensky will doubtless use the Pentagon’s refusal as grounds to accuse America of losing its nerve. But one defense official told the AP that “Ukrainians are flying relatively few of their existing aircraft, for relatively little time, as it is.” And Ukrainian jets remain within range of Russia’s own surface-to-air missiles based on land and sea. The MiGs aren’t going to win the war for Ukraine. At best, it seems, they’d be a morale booster, a vote of confidence from the west. If the enemy here weren’t nuclear-capable, morale might be enough of a reason to do it. Since the enemy is nuclear-capable and World War III is in the offing if things go sideways, eh.