President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged Washington to provide Poland and other eastern European allies with American aircraft that would then enable those countries to send Russian-made military planes to Ukraine.
In a call with almost 300 US lawmakers, Zelensky made an emotional plea for help and said Ukraine badly needed more aircraft, particularly after Nato decided against creating a no-fly zone because it would risk a broader conflict with Russia, according to people familiar with the call.
Zelensky asked the US to provide Poland and three other Nato countries with US aircraft that would allow them up to then send Russian-made aircraft to Ukraine, the people said. Ukrainian pilots need Russian-made aircraft since those are the systems they have been trained to fly.
Washington is working to provide more support to Ukraine and this week started sending anti-aircraft stinger missiles — the same weapon that the US provided the Mujahedeen to repel the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. But Ukraine has stressed that it needs aircraft to repel Russia in the air.
One US lawmaker who took part in the call said Zelensky had expressed appreciation for the stingers, but said they were insufficient because they were not able to fly high enough to take out some of the Russian aircraft.
While the US and allies have supplied a range of weapons to Ukraine, they are worried that Vladimir Putin would view the provision of warplanes as a big escalation that he might interpret as Nato effectively entering the conflict against Russia.
Ukraine said some eastern European nations had agreed to provide fighter jets, but the claims were denied. Polish president Andrzej Duda said sending planes would be tantamount to interfering in the conflict.
A senior US defence official said the Pentagon was “not actively entertaining” the idea of sending US air force planes to Nato allies to enable them to send their own warplanes to Ukraine. Another person familiar with the debate said US officials had told allies it was their decision whether they wanted to send Russian-made aircraft to Ukraine.
Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democratic congressman who participated in the zoom call, told the Financial Times that there was broad bipartisan support in Congress to find creative solutions. He pointed to the example of the US passing the Lend-Lease Act during the second world war to make it easier to provide countries with war supplies and weapons.
“We have to start looking at analogies to the Lend-Lease Act in terms of a 2022 version of it for Ukraine,” Boyle said. “There is widespread bipartisan support in Congress and also popular American support for doing everything we can to arm the Ukrainians. Politically speaking, this is a relatively easy lift.”
Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, said that Zelensky had made a “desperate plea” for eastern European countries to provide Russian-made planes.
Zelensky reminded the group that a no-fly zone was his top priority but that he wanted more aircraft if that was not possible.
Ben Sasse, a Republican senator, said a no-fly zone would mean sending US pilots into combat against Russia in a “battle between nuclear powers that could spiral out of control quickly.” But he said Washington should supply Ukraine with aircraft, helicopters and drones.
“Let’s resupply Ukraine’s air force today and keep the Ghosts of Kyiv in the skies,” Sasse said, referring to unconfirmed stories of a Ukrainian pilot who had downed several Russian planes.
A senior US defence official on Friday said the Pentagon had provided Ukraine with $240mn in military assistance from the $350mn President Joe Biden recently approved. She said the remaining $110mn would likely arrive in Ukraine over the next week and that the administration was working with Congress to secure more funds.
One lawmaker who participated in the call said there was a unified sense that Zelensky was a “world hero”.
Zelensky opened the call with a 20-minute plea for more US support. But at one point during his emotional presentation, he paused to ask one of the American lawmakers to mute themselves.
“Senator Rick Scott, please mute your mic,” said the Ukrainian leader who was dressed in his customary T-shirt, according to one person on the call.
Additional reporting by James Shotter