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Slovakia joins fellow NATO member Poland in sending fighter jets to Ukraine

MIG-29 fighter jets of the Polish Air Force take part in a NATO shielding exercise at the Lask Air Base on Oct. 12, 2022, in Lask, Poland.
Omar Marques
Getty Images
MIG-29 fighter jets of the Polish Air Force take part in a NATO shielding exercise at the Lask Air Base on Oct. 12, 2022, in Lask, Poland.

Updated March 17, 2023 at 8:51 AM ET

Slovakia announced it would send 13 MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine in the coming weeks, joining fellow NATO member Poland. Slovakia's MiG-29s were retired last summer and most are not operational. The country plans to send those that are, with the rest going as spare parts for Ukraine's existing fleet.

On Thursday, Polish President Andrzej Duda said his country would deliver four MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine in "the next few days," making Poland the first NATO country to supply fighter planes to Ukraine. Slovakia is also a NATO member.

Ukraine has long urgently requested warplanes to fight Russian forces. Poland, one of Ukraine's staunchest supporters in its fight against Russia, has often taken the lead in persuading sometimes hesitant allies to provide Kyiv with heavy weapons. Duda hinted that Poland may send additional fighter jets in the coming weeks.

Ukraine has also been asking for U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, but the Biden administration has repeatedly turned down the request. The United States says it would take too long to train Ukrainian pilots on them, and maintenance and logistics would be too complicated to manage during an ongoing conflict.

Unlike F-16s and other fighter jets, Ukraine has been flying Soviet-era MiG-29s for decades and could start using them right away.

In an interview with NPR earlier this year, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said he was confident Ukraine would eventually get Western-made fighter jets.

Poland has about 28 MiG-29s and has been replacing them with more advanced U.S.-made planes and hopes to purchase cutting-edge F-35s.

The U.S. isn't offering F-16s for now

Asked about Poland's announcement about sending warplanes to Ukraine, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters, "These are sovereign decisions for any country to make and we respect those sovereign decisions."

Kirby praised Poland for its overall security assistance for Ukraine, saying the country was "punching above its weight."

"As with every other contribution by every other nation, they get to determine not only what they're going to give but how they're going to characterize it," he said. "It doesn't change our calculus with respect to F-16s," Kirby said, referring to Biden's recent comments ruling out providing the fighter jets to Ukraine. "It's not on the table right now."

The U.S. and NATO allies have pledged to send other weaponry to Ukraine in recent months, including advanced rockets like HIMARs and battle tanks like the Leopard 2 and Challenger. Ukrainian soldiers are already being trained on them.

The U.S. and others have also been sending artillery shells, which the Ukrainian military has been using at a high rate, as the battle over the town of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, rages on.

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Nishant Dahiya
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.