By Natasha Bertrand and Alex Marquardt, CNN
Top Ukrainian officials have in recent days escalated their public lobbying campaign for US-made F-16 fighter jets, arguing they need them urgently to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks.
But that push is being met with skepticism by US and allied officials who say the jets would be impractical, both because they require considerable training and because Russia has extensive anti-aircraft systems that could easily shoot them down.
More puzzling to US officials is why Ukraine has made such a public show of asking for F-16s, when in private the jets are rarely mentioned atop Ukraine’s wish list of weapons.
In private conversations US officials at the Pentagon and the White House have had with Ukrainians over the last several months, fighter jets have not ranked highly on the country’s list of priorities, officials said. Instead, Ukraine has been much more focused on long-range missiles — which the US is reluctant to hand over — as well as more ammunition, air defenses and tanks, which are now on their way after a dramatic public debate among NATO allies.
The Europeans have had a similar experience. French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Monday that while “nothing is off-limits in principle,” neither the Netherlands nor France had received any official requests from Ukraine to send the fighter jets.
Asked on Monday whether the US would be providing F-16s to Ukraine, President Joe Biden responded with a flat “no.” Asked on Tuesday, whether he plans to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky amid his calls for F-16 jets, Biden said, “We’re going to talk.”
Ukraine’s renewed public push for the planes, which Ukraine’s foreign minister publicly described as a “priority” on Tuesday, appears driven in large part by a belief in Kyiv that with enough public pressure, the Ukrainians can eventually secure weapons systems that were once deemed a red line by the west.
“What is impossible today is absolutely possible tomorrow,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told NPR on Tuesday.
A Ukrainian military official echoed that sentiment in comments to CNN, saying, “It’s going to come sooner or later.”
“One year ago everyone rejected HIMARS and no one could imagine Abrams tanks,” the official said, referring to US missile systems provided to Ukraine last year, and the Biden administration’s decision last week to give Ukraine the flagship American battle tank.
So far, Ukrainian persistence has paid off, not just in securing German and US heavy tanks, but in December, after months of pressure by the Ukrainians, the US finally agreed to send a Patriot air defense battery — a system the US once considered too challenging to transfer and operate.
“I don’t think fighter jets are easier than ATACMS, but I believe we need to try to push,” the Ukrainian military official told CNN, referring to the long-range missiles they still want.
“I’m optimistic but I’m not sure it will happen tomorrow. At least people have started talking about it.”
A year of debate over F-16s
US and European officials have similarly told CNN and said publicly that the F-16 fighter jets are impractical, and note that Ukraine has not been conducting many air missions with the fighter planes it already has because of the danger posed by Russia’s anti-aircraft systems, officials told CNN.
Early on in the war, the US believed that supplying Ukraine with new fighter jets would risk an escalation between NATO and Russia. Last March, Poland was prepared to transfer its MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine as long as the US agreed to backfill Warsaw with F-16s. The US ultimately decided against that plan, however, deeming it too provocative.
The US position has since changed, officials said, and the concerns with the F-16s now are less about escalation and more about logistical challenges, officials said. Though the Pentagon has not explicitly ruled out sending F-16s to Ukraine, officials view it as a long term proposition, one likely measured on a timeline of years instead of months.
“We are providing them what we think they are capable of operating, maintaining, and sustaining,” deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh said last week. “The F-16 — this is a very complicated system.”
The US has not indicated to allies that it would be opposed to other countries sending their stock of F-16s to Ukraine, sources told CNN. But many US officials believe that for the US to send its own would be an expensive and complicated undertaking that US officials don’t believe is worth it in the short term when compared to Ukraine’s more immediate needs of artillery, rockets, and air defense systems.
But European countries with F-16s and other types of fighter jets in their inventory do not appear prepared to transfer them now, either.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appeared to rule it out entirely last week.
“There will be no fighter jet deliveries to Ukraine,” he said. “This was made clear very early, including from [the] U.S. president.”
The UK, meanwhile, believes that the fighter jets “are extremely sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly,” a British government spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday. “Given that, we believe it is not practical to send those jets into Ukraine.”
Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, also appeared reluctant, telling reporters on Monday that sending the planes “would really be a big next step if it comes to that.” And Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki indicated on Monday that Warsaw would only send its fighter jets “in full coordination” with its NATO partners.
The Ukrainians appear undeterred. On Tuesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Ukraine needs the fighter jets “first and foremost,” along with long-range missiles.
“Our partners are aware of the types of weapons we need — first and foremost, fighter jets and long-range missiles that can hit targets up to 300 km away,” he said in a briefing. “These are not weapons of escalation, but rather weapons of defense and deterrence against the aggressor. We are actively negotiating to unlock all these solutions. I have instructed all our diplomats in key capitals to make this a priority.”
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