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U.S. working with Poland on deal to send fighter jets to Ukraine

Cbsnews | Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned US legislators on Saturday that the struggle for control of Ukraine will be fought in the air, and he pleaded with them to provide him with jets to keep Russia at bay. The United States is pressing Poland and other Eastern European countries to hand over their Russian-made fighter jets to Ukraine and is developing a plan to replace the planes with F-16s from the United States.

The Russian jets have the advantage that Ukrainian pilots have already been trained to fly them.

The other advantage is that these planes can be deployed much faster. According to a US official, the administration has urged Poland that it should make Russian-made MiGs in its inventory available because transferring them would not require US consent. Any attempt to deploy newly constructed planes to Ukraine, on the other hand, could be hindered by years of paperwork with defense contractors.

Furthermore, the transfer of F-16 fighter jets manufactured in the United States from NATO partners would necessitate congressional notification. Because Ukrainian pilots are not trained to fly American planes, even if they were able to receive them sooner, the fighter airplanes would not be immediately useful to them.

According to Jane's World Air Forces, Poland has 21 single-seat MiG-29s and 6 twin-seat MiG-29s.

Despite the fact that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated that the US would approve the planes' delivery to Ukraine and that the US is already in talks with Poland about backfilling its aircraft inventory, Poland has not yet opted to proceed with the transfers. A story claiming that Poland would transfer Ukraine MiG-29s in exchange for US-made F-16s was labeled "false news" by the Polish prime minister's chancellery in a tweet over the weekend.

It's also unclear if Poland would hand over its complete collection of planes — or even whether they're all in functional order.

While the US is working with Poland and other NATO partners on this matter, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated Monday that "this is Poland's sovereign decision to make."

She mentioned the logistical difficulties of transporting planes from Poland to Ukraine. "Will they be able to fly? What will be their point of departure? What will be their landing spot? All of these are critical questions in this situation "During the daily White House press briefing, Psaki said.

Psaki also stated that backfilling planes for European allies sending jets to Ukraine is difficult logistically, "since purchasing new planes and transferring serious weaponry systems from the United States often takes years."

Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Colonel and senior counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies spoke with CBS News about the reasons behind Poland's hesitancy.

"That isn't a logistical problem. This is a political matter. It's a political issue in the sense that if you take a Polish plane and put a Ukrainian pilot on board, and the Ukrainian pilot then flies the plane into Ukraine to fight the Russians, the Russians can reasonably argue that Poland has now become a co-belligerent because it's launching planes from its soil into Ukraine "Cancian remarked. "As a result, the Poles are quite concerned about this and want to ensure that they are not exposed to Russian retaliation."

Cancian believes that, in the end, Poland will agree to a settlement "because of two factors. The first is that there is a strong desire to assist the Ukrainians. Second, it's a fantastic bargain for Poland if it can get rid of outdated Soviet planes and replace them with modern American F-16s. That is what they want to do. I believe they'll sort something out between the two of them."

One critique of this plan, according to Cancian, is that these planes are vulnerable. "They might not make as much of a difference as we expect. What good would it do us if we fly them into Ukraine and the Russians shoot them down with long-range missiles the next day?" He did, however, point out that "There's also a symbolism element to it at this time. There's a lot of potentials there, but there's also some symbolism."

Senators Rob Portman and Jeanne Shaheen wrote to President Biden after Zelensky spoke before Congress, encouraging him to deploy American-made jets to European friends that supply Ukraine with Soviet-era planes. Poland, Bulgaria, and Slovakia were mentioned as countries in talks with the US regarding transferring some of their inventory to the Ukrainian Air Force.

The Biden administration has sought for an additional $10 billion in funds for Ukraine to be included in a wide government funding bill that Congress is expected to vote this week.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova outlined Ukraine's requests for the legislation in a letter to senators acquired by CBS News on Monday, which included taking proper steps to assist Ukraine with aircraft and defensive systems.

The airspace over Ukraine remains contested, according to a US official, and the Pentagon estimates that the Ukrainians still have a majority of their fixed-wing aircraft available.

The Ukrainians have slowed the Russian advance on important population centers, but as the days pass, the Russians have continued to strike targets without regard for civilian infrastructure.

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