Republican senators on Thursday accused the Biden administration of caving to Russian President Vladimir Putin by ditching a plan to supply warplanes to Ukraine for fear that Moscow would see it as an escalation of the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pleaded repeatedly for the U.S. to provide his military with more aircraft.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon said it nixed a plan for the U.S. to act as a middle man to send Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine because it risked escalating the conflict.
Forty GOP senators signed onto a letter from Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mitt Romney of Utah urging President Joe Biden to answer the call.
Sen. Tom Cotton accused the administration of giving way to Moscow and demanded that President Joe Biden do more to put Putin on the back foot.
‘If we continue to blink every time Vladimir Putin says, “Boo,” it’s not gonna stop in Ukraine. It’s not going to stop in Europe,’ he said.
‘We might as well call the commanding general at Fort Lewis outside Seattle and tell him to take down the flag and surrender our position because we will never stand up to Russia if every time Vladimir Putin says, “Boo,” we back down.’
At a press conference on Capitol Hill, Sen. Mitt Romney said: “Enough talk. People are dying.
‘Send them the planes they need.’
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky criticized the Biden administration for moving too slowly to send military help to Ukraine.
‘This administration has been a step behind every step of the way,’ McConnell said.
Congress is poised to approve nearly $14 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine, including more weapons as well as humanitarian help.
It comes as the administration is under mounting pressure to do more to deter Putin from launching a chemical weapons attack and to stop him attacking civilian targets.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki steered clear of saying the Russian leader would be crossing a ‘red line’ with chemical weapons, and she and other officials have stopped short of accusing him of war crimes.
And earlier, the nation’s intelligence chiefs defended the decision not to help Poland send the MiGs to Ukraine.
Sen. Tom Cotton accused the Biden administration of caving to Moscow by refusing to help Poland send MiG-29 fighter jets to Poland. ‘If we continue to blink every time Vladimir Putin says, “Boo,” it’s not gonna stop in Ukraine,’ he said
A day earlier the Pentagon ruled out a Polish plan to hand its MiG-29s to the U.S. for transfer to Ukraine’s armed forces
The country’s intelligence chiefs appeared before senators Thursday. From left are FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and CIA Director William Burns
Explosions rocked Mariupol again on Thursday as Russian forces shelled the city, raising fresh accusations of atrocities
This image taken from video provided by the Mariupol City Council shows the aftermath of Mariupol Hospital after an attack, in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday March 9, 2022
CIA director Burns says chemical weapon use is ‘part of Russia’s playbook’ and Director of National Intelligence slams Russian nuclear lab propaganda
CIA director Bill Burns appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday to talk about ‘worldwide threats
U.S. intelligence chiefs on Thursday denounced what they said was a classic Russian disinformation campaign accusing Washington of backing biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine, which they said could set the scene for Russia to launch its own chemical attacks.
C.I.A. Director Bill Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines both said there was no evidence that Ukraine was developing weapons of mass destruction.
Instead, they joined a chorus of warnings that Moscow could be preparing a fake narrative before it unleashed its own chemical arsenal.
‘I think it underscores the concern that all of us need to focus on those kinds of issues, whether it’s the potential for a use of chemical weapons either as a false flag operation or against Ukrainians,’ Burns told the Senate intelligence committee.
‘This is something as all of you know very well is very much a part of Russia’s playbook.
‘They’ve used those weapons against their own citizens. They’ve at least encouraged the use in Syria and elsewhere.
‘So it’s something we take very seriously.’
Concerns flared a day earlier, when Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed, without evidence, that Ukraine was running chemical and biological weapons labs with U.S. support.
The claims are not new, but have circulated as debunked conspiracy theories that have been spread by the likes of QAnon-linked websites.
On Thursday, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that it had uncovered U.S. and Ukrainian plans to spread flu with birds.
‘At least two species of migratory birds were identified, the routes of which pass mainly through Russia, and information on migration routes through the countries of Eastern Europe was also summarized,’ it said in a release.
It comes as military analysts have warned that the war could take a brutal turn as Putin switches tactics after his forces failed to make the rapid breakthrough he expected.
Cotton pressed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on why supplying the most advanced anti-tank grenades and anti-aircraft was permitted, but supplying aircraft was escalatory.
‘I don’t see a lot of common sense between this distinction,’ he said.
She responded by saying the U.S. was trying to walk a fine line.
‘We’re in a very challenging position, right, where we are obviously providing enormous amounts of support to Ukraine as we should and need to do, but at the same time trying not to escalate the conflict into a full-on NATO or U.S. war with Russia,’ she said during a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Cotton and other senators accused the country’s highest ranking intelligence chiefs of giving the administration cover for not facilitating a fighter exchange, when officials had already said it was OK for other countries to send warplanes directly.
Sen. Ben Sasse weighed in to support Cotton’s line of questioning.
‘Vladimir Putin will embrace the idea that we might self-deter every time he issues a press release,’ he said
‘And lawyerly hair-splitting about providing this kind of weaponry is not escalatory but providing that kind of weaponry is escalatory – I don’t think we really believe that.
‘I think the administration is pushing the intelligence community to give them cover for lean forward decisions they don’t want to be making.’
Earlier it was reported that Biden personally blocked the Polish plan to supply MiG-29 jets to Ukraine.
‘POTUS will do what the military advises here and the advice now is not to do this and instead send the Ukrainian government more things they can make good use of,’ a senior administration official told Politico.
Ukraine has ‘many planes they already don’t fly much because of Russian air defense.’ The official added that it’s ‘not clear what sending more planes achieves.’
The decision put paid to days of on-off speculation, that began when a top European Union diplomat promised the jets to Ukraine and ended after Poland stunned Washington by saying it would hand the planes to the U.S. which would then transfer them to Ukraine.
‘We do not support the transfer of the fighters to the Ukrainian air force at this time and have no desire to see them in our custody either,’ Press secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday, as he described the sentiment of a call between Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin and his Polish counterpart.
He said that the Pentagon had assessed the warplanes would not materially improve Ukraine’s defense posture, while it would escalate the prospects of drawing NATO, of which both the U.S. and Poland are a part, into direct conflict.
Critics have noted that the U.S. has already delivered hundreds of millions in lethal aid to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to US lawmakers over the weekend and asked them help facilitate the transfer of jets, including MiG-29s, to Ukraine. Ukraine currently has between 37 and 70 MiG-29s.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused the U.S. and Poland of playing games with people’s lives. ‘Listen,’ the Ukrainian leader pleaded, ‘We have a war! We do not have time for all these signals. This is not ping pong! This is about human lives! We ask once again: solve it faster.’
‘Do not shift the responsibility. Send us planes,’ Zelensky demanded. He spent 45 minutes on the phone with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, where he begged her too for more jets. But skeptics within the Biden administration pushed back on the idea, and Biden himself agreed, according to Politico.
Despite desperate please from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and pressure from lawmakers at home, President Biden killed the Polish plan to transfer MiG-29 jets to Ukraine
The Pentagon poured cold water on Poland’s offer to hand all its MiG-29 fighter jets to the US, apparently as part of an arrangement to deliver the warplanes to Ukraine’s armed forces where they are desperately needed
Poland said it was ready to deploy ‘immediately and free of charge’ all its MiG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the ‘disposal of the Government of the United States of America’
Republicans and Democrats called on the Biden administration to heed Zelensky’s calls for more aircraft.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it was time to make Putin ‘fearful.’
‘It’s time for Putin to be fearful of what we might do. This is war. People are dying. We need to get aircraft to President Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine immediately,’ he wrote on Twitter.
Senate Foreign Relations chair Bob Menendez, D-N.J., wrote to Blinken and Austin this week calling on the U.S. to commit to replacing any aircraft donated by Poland and other NATO countries to Ukraine with American planes.
‘The Ukrainians are getting bombarded, and they do not have ― at least as their country’s leaders suggest and assert ― the wherewithal to compete in the sky,’ Menendez said during a committee hearing Thursday with defense officials.
‘I understand why NATO and the United States are not engaged in a no-fly-zone ― that it has potential direct conflict with Russia ― but I don’t understand why we are not working expeditiously to facilitate planes to Ukraine.’
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, questioned why the U.S. felt comfortable sending Javelins and Stinger missiles but felt providing planes was too escalatory.
‘So you’re saying that we would like to send something that’s more effective that should offend Vladimir Putin more than the airplanes, and yet we cannot send the airplanes? What’s the logic behind that,’ said Portman during the hearing.
The U.S. had a long list of logistical concerns in transferring the aircraft – and as Biden has promised not to put boots on the ground in Ukraine, U.S. pilots could not fly the planes into the war zone.
The administration also considered the transfer of fighter jets to be a more aggressive move than providing Ukraine anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.
Officials also said that the transfer may have been possible if it had been kept under wraps, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy chief, rendered a secret mission impossible when he announced to reporters that the European bloc would provide the jets, to the shock and dismay of many U.S. and European officials.
Kyiv was only interested in handful of aircraft that its air force is familiar with, (which excludes U.S. jets) – the MiG-29, the Su-25, and the MiG-21. These aircraft are currently used by Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, and Slovakia.
Of these, the MiG-29 is best-equipped to take on Russia’s aerial forces. Poland currently has 28 MiG-29s.
The Ukrainians hear Borrell’s comments and ran with the idea, boasting that they would soon get 70 new MiG-29s. They even sent pilots to Poland to seal up the deal and bring the planes home, a Ukrainian official told Politico.
But Poland killed such a deal when it announced no Polish jets would be given to Ukraine.
‘Poland won’t send its fighter jets to Ukraine as well as allow to use its airports. We significantly help in many other areas,’ the Polish Chancellery of the Prime Minister wrote in a tweet Sunday.
Still, the Biden administration pressed forward with a three-way deal.
Sec. of State Antony Blinken first announced on Sunday that the U.S. was in talks with Poland to backfill their supply of MiG-29s with American F-16s if they offered the warplanes to Ukraine.
He said that Poland had a ‘green light’ to sent the war planes, and the U.S. would assist with backfilling their needs.
‘We’re in very active discussions with them about that,’ Blinken said on CBS News’ ‘Face the Nation.’
Poland quickly said it would not be sending the jets directly to Ukraine, with both the U.S and Poland citing logistical issues but also quietly concerned with how the move could be viewed as an act of war on their part.
Poland then suggested they would fly their MiG-29 jets to the U.S.’s Rammstein Air Base in Germany, where it would be up to the U.S. to deliver the jets back east to Ukraine. Kirby said that proposal was ‘untenable,’ before killing the transfer idea altogether.
The administration was at first widely on board with assisting Warsaw in delivering the planes. But the Pentagon, along with members of the intelligence community, opposed the three-way plan, for fears it would provoke a direct conflict between NATO and Russia and concerns that the F-16s would have to be severely downgraded to provide them to Poland to avoid compromising the highly classified avionics systems installed in the planes.
Biden sided with the Pentagon. The White House reportedly said it would respect Poland’s decision of whether or not to offer the jets, but made clear it could not guarantee a speedy backfill of F-16s. Poland then shocked U.S. officials with its proposal to give the jets to the U.S. to deliver.
U.S. troops fire Stinger missile from their Stryker armored fighting vehicle during Saber Strike military drill in Rutja, Estonia March 10, 2022. The U.S. and allies have delivered shoulder-fired Stingers to Ukraine
U.S. troops prepare to fire Stinger missiles from their Stryker armored fighting vehicle during Saber Strike military drill in Rutja, Estonia March 10, 2022. U.S. and allied forces carried out military exercises in Estonia Thursday
A Russian armoured vehicle sits by the side of the road in Brovary, to the east of Kyiv, after being destroyed in an artillery and rocket ambush that caused heavy casualties
‘We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,’ Kirby said after the offer.
The deal essentially fell through altogether when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he would not allow the Polish planes to land at Rammstein in Germany.
‘We might’ve been in a different place if this hadn’t turned into the Poles putting this on the table,’ a senior State official said, according to Politico.
And after Kirby said the proposal was not ‘tenable’ he later took the podium before reporters to announce that the U.S. would not be party to the deal entirely.
Gen. Tod Wolters, the U.S. European Command chief, shortly after agreed with Kirby.
‘The transfer of MiG-29 aircraft will not appreciably increase the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force. The Ukrainian Air Force currently possesses numerous mission capable aircraft that are flying daily. Adding aircraft to the Ukrainian inventory is unlikely to change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capabilities. Therefore, we assess that the overall gain is low,’ he said in a statement.
Most of the fighting in Ukraine remains a ground conflict, though the Russian air force has stepped up its airstrikes in recent days.