Poland is poised to become the first nation to give Ukraine the fighter jets that Kyiv has long sought to take the fight to the country’s Russian invaders, according to a statement made by Polish President Andrzej Duda on 16 March 2023.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Warsaw with the visiting Czech president, Petr Pavel, Duda said Poland would give Ukraine around a dozen or so MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ fighters. He said four of the type would be handed over “within the next few days”, while the rest require servicing and would be supplied later. According to AP reporting of his statement, the Polish word he used to describe the number of aircraft being supplied can mean between 11 and 19.

“They are in the last years of their functioning but they are in good working order,” Duda is reported to have said.

The offer is significant because the Ukrainian Air Force (Povitryani Syly Ukrayiny – PSU) is already an operator of the Soviet-designed MiG-29, meaning that there will be few training or logistical issues in assimilating the aircraft into the PSU inventory.

While Ukrainian President has continually entreated Western nations to donate fighters since the Russians invaded in February 2022, NATO and its allies have been reticent to supply Western fighter types that would come with a significant training and logistical burden for Ukraine, deeming this impractical.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies Military Balance 2023, the Polish Air Force (Siły Powietrzne – SP) has 28 MiG-29s still in service: 22 single-seat MiG-29As and six MiG-29UB two-seat conversion trainers. From 2024 these were due to be replaced by F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, of which Poland ordered 32 in January 2020, and also TAI FA-50s, of which Poland ordered 48 in July 2022.

A Polish MiG-29 on exercise with the US Air Force in September 2021. Poland’s announced donation of MiG-29s to Ukraine will give Kyiv a near-term boost to its air combat capabilities. (Photo: USAF)

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 the PSU operated a fast jet combat air fleet of about 132 aircraft that included three or four dozen operational MiG-29s of around 100 of the type in its inventory. As of mid-March the Oryx website that tracks visually verifiable equipment destroyed in the Ukraine conflict was listing the PSU as having lost 18 MiG-29s, suggesting it possibly has around 20 operational ‘Fulcrums’ left.

The Polish donation could potentially double the size of this fleet.

Slovakia has also previously said it would send retired MiG-29s to Ukraine, but had not firmed up these plans as of 16 March.

The PSU will have to be careful how it uses the Polish MiG-29s once they are received. Unlike land systems, which can be dispersed and hidden relatively easily, the fact that fighters can only operate from aerodromes, be they military air bases or civilian airports, means the Russians are likely to target them with missiles or armed unmanned aerial vehicles.

Peter Felstead