Britain would support and provide assistance to Poland or any other central or eastern European country willing to supply Russian-designed jet fighters to Ukraine, the defense secretary has said.
Ben Wallace said on Monday the UK would “stand by any country who makes that choice” and would “defend their right to do it” – although it is a step that no country has been willing to take for fear of Russian reprisals.
A plan for Poland to transfer 28 MiG-29 jets familiar to Ukraine’s pilots in March via the US collapsed after White House objectives – and has not been revived despite Kyiv’s repeated call for more airpower to defend itself.
When asked about whether Ukraine still needed more powerful weapons to force out the Russian invaders, Wallace said the UK had supported the idea of a Polish jet transfer at the time – and continued to do so. “If Poland chose to do that we would support them,” he said.
Britain would be willing to backfill – lend airpower to make good any shortfall – Wallace said, highlighting that in April the UK agreed to send two additional Typhoon jets to Romania, taking its total contingent to six, as part of a Black Sea air policing mission .
Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria have a handful of MiG-29 jets that could in theory be given to Ukraine, but the US and other western countries have worried that such a move could be dangerously escalatory, given that Nato has agreed it does not want to enforce a no-fly zone or more directly go to war with Russia.
But during the past month, the west has stepped up its supply of weapons, with the US giving 155mm Nato standard howitzers, Germany supplying Gepard 2 mobile artillery and Britain providing a range of armoured vehicles for troop movement.
Wallace said that both he and Boris Johnson wanted to “do everything we can” to try and meet Ukraine’s military needs – but acknowledged that the issue of air power was a remaining area of discussion amongst western donors. “The only real key is the debate about air,” Wallace said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amounted to the beginning of a new cold war, Wallace said, arguing that whatever happened in the war Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was likely to be “around for some time” afterwards.
Nato countries would have to ask “how are we going to contain him and his Russia” in a way that provided security and safety to Europe, said the defense minister, who added: “I’m an old soul, I do remember the cold war.”
Eastern and central European countries want the UK and western allies to send more troops to garrison the alliance’s Russian flank. That plus ongoing support to Ukraine is likely to lead to growing pressure to increase defense spending from its existing level of about 2% of GDP, the floor target set by Nato.
Wallace’s remarks came in response to questions after a speech timed to coincide with Russia’s 9 May Victory Day parades commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the second world war. In it he had accused Putin and his inner political circle of “mirroring” the fascism of the Nazis by attacking Ukraine.