Republicans including Sen. Susan Collins are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to enable the transfer of Polish airplanes and other defensive capabilities to Ukraine as the Russian invasion enters its third week.
It highlights some of the political divisions within Washington despite broad support for Ukraine. The push to do more to help Ukraine amid mounting casualties runs into concerns that more hawkish moves could lead to a direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia.
Assistance in obtaining additional airplanes was one of the major requests from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a Zoom call with lawmakers last weekend. Such a transfer has been delayed amid questions about where the planes would come from and how they would get to Ukraine.
Poland, a NATO ally that shares a border with Ukraine, offered earlier this week to transfer some Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine. But the plan was contingent on the planes going via a U.S. air base in Germany. The U.S. would also replace Poland’s fleet with newer, American-made planes.
The Biden administration balked, citing concerns that sending planes from a U.S. base through contested airspace over Ukraine could trigger conflict between Russia and the NATO allies.
“Our goal is to end the war, not to expand it — including potentially expand it to NATO territory,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a Wednesday conference.
That set off some political division with respect to response to the Ukraine situation, with Collins and the majority of other Senate Republicans signing a letter Thursday calling on the Defense Department to facilitate the transfer of aircraft and other defense systems via NATO.
“The Ukrainian military is in dire need of more lethal aid,” the senators wrote.
Russia’s larger air force has not yet translated into complete dominance of the skies. But Ukrainian officials have pushed for more air defense assistance in recent days amid mounting destruction and casualties. In response to questioning from Collins during a hearing on Thursday, Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Ukraine “could make very good use of” additional aircraft or drones.
Ukraine has also called on Western allies to implement a no-fly zone, something the U.S. and other NATO countries have rejected outright, saying it would escalate the conflict if NATO were to engage with Russian planes. Supplying Ukraine with aircraft instead of a Western-led no-fly zone could be seen as middle ground. U.S. officials indicated Thursday they were still open to supplying Ukraine with other air defense systems.