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Could NATO Still Send MiG-29s To Ukraine to Fight Russia?

MiG-29
MiG-29. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

What’s the status of the abortive plan to transfer MiG-29 “Fulcrums” from former Warsaw Pact air forces to Ukraine? Could the MiG-29 deal come back? The short answer is Yes, and it almost certainly is happening right now.

What Has Gone Before

The first two iterations of the MiG-29 deal failed for sound reasons. The idea that Ukrainian fighter pilots could simply pick up the aircraft in Germany and fly them into a warzone defied belief, which is not to say it couldn’t happen; a great many things happened in the first week of the war that defied belief. But there were intractable problems that weren’t necessarily obvious to onlookers.

Polish and Ukrainian Fulcrums are not the same; aircraft on each side of the line have already undergone a long series of upgrades that left them quite different. Some of these electronics fell under export control restrictions as they included parts that the United States did not wish to see fall into Russian hands. Other difficulties included how the aircraft would be transferred to Ukrainian hands, with NATO trying to avoid the problematic optics of laden fighter jets taking off from Germany and landing in a warzone.

What Can Ukraine Do with the MiGs?

An interview of a Ukrainian fighter pilot at Coffee or Die clarified many of the tactics that the Ukrainian air force has used to remain alive and effective. Essentially, the Ukrainians have approached the war with extraordinary care and attention to force preservation while at the same time opportunistically providing ground support and other kinds of attacks to unsettle and unbalance the Russian offensive. Russians have taken Ukrainian air (and surface-to-air) capabilities seriously, often discharging weapons while still in Russian airspace. A recent strike by two Su-27 Flankers on Russian facilities on Snake Island indicated that the Ukrainian air force is still alive and kicking.

To the extent that Ukraine can keep its aircraft in the air, it can deter Russian strikes on western Ukraine, support Ukrainian ground forces in the field, and prevent the Russian air force from securely using Ukrainian airspace.

What Can Be Done?

“Juice,” the fighter pilot interviewed by Nolan Peterson for Coffee or Die, argued that Ukraine could use the European MiG-29s in the short term, but that in the slightly longer term it very much needed Western jets such as the F-16. This echoes the repeated impassioned requests by President Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials for additional fighter aircraft.

Central and Eastern European countries still have plenty of aircraft to be transferred to Ukraine.Slovakia has discussed sending its MiGs to Ukraine, assuming that the air defense capability is rapidly backfilled by the rest of NATO. The US also appears to have facilitated the transfer of spares to Ukraine, allowing mothballed parts of the existing force to return to service. The US announcement that it would supply Bulgaria with eight F-16s is perhaps an indicator that something is in the works. It is probably not coincidental that Russia attacked a MiG-29 production facility with cruise missiles, as this facility would undoubtedly help retool, refurbish, and repair MiGs acquired from NATO

But as Tyler Rogoway argues, once our time horizon has shifted from a few weeks to a few months, much can become possible. Fighter and attack aircraft can be prepared for delivery, and pilots can be trained on new jets and new types of weapons. Rogoway suggests that NATO simply pick a fighter to begin training Ukrainian pilots on as the foundation for a transfer program. The F-16 seems like an obvious candidate but isn’t as capable as some other fighters, including the Saab Gripen and the Boeing F-15 Eagle. Whichever fighter NATO transfers will require immense operational and industrial support to keep in the skies for any significant period of time, meaning that Western countries should be fully aware of what they’re getting into.

What are the dangers?

Russia has not reacted violently to the transfer of NATO military equipment to Ukraine thus far, although it has complained bitterly. We have an imperfect sense of Russia’s escalation red lines, and it may be that Russia would regard the direct transfer of MiG-29s (to say nothing of F-15s) as representing a more direct intervention in the war than it is willing to tolerate. However, Russia’s options for escalation remain limited; involving NATO in the conventional war is simply not a winner for Russia at this point in the conflict.

F-15E

F-15E fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

History also must inform our analysis of these issues. It is not at all unusual for countries to supply their allies with fighter aircraft during war. The United States supplied aircraft (and pilots) to China during the Sino-Japanese War; Washington supplied pilots to Britain and France in the early days of World War II; the Soviet Union supplied fighters to both China and North Korea during the Korean War; China and the Soviet Union supplied aircraft and training to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and so forth. There are legitimate concerns about how to handle the transfer of aircraft, but given the amount of military equipment NATO has transferred to Ukraine thus far, fighter jets aren’t much of an escalation. Given that the time horizon of the war now extends to months and possibly years, and given that the Ukrainians seem to be using their existing airframes productively, NATO should continue to carefully pursue the project of rearming Ukraine’s air force.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Alex

    May 11, 2022 at 5:50 pm

    What F-15, dreamer? This is a direct declaration of war and the end for all NATO and the whole world.

    A bit of truth.

    The head of the UN monitoring mission, Matilda Bogner, said that the organization has reliable information about the torture of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian captivity:
    “Ukraine and Russia must promptly and effectively investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners of war,” she said.

    The military-civilian administration of the Kherson region announced their intention to appeal to Putin with a request to include the region into Russia:
    “We intend to live as part of the Russian Federation. We fully cooperate and feel as one with the regions of Russia.”

    Pfizer, Moderna, Merck, Gilead are testing medicines in Ukraine, bypassing international safety standards, reducing the costs of research programs and gaining significant competitive advantages. Coronavirus vaccine manufacturers have been involved in US military biological activities.

    Along with American pharmaceutical companies and Pentagon contractors, Ukrainian state structures are involved in military biological activities, the main tasks of which are to conceal illegal activities, conduct field and clinical trials, and provide the necessary biomaterial.
    The American side expanded its research potential both in the field of creating biological weapons and in the field of obtaining information about antibiotic resistance and the presence of antibodies to various diseases in the population of specific regions.

    Ukraine has long become a training ground for Western countries to create biological weapons components and test new samples of pharmaceuticals.

    The United States, as part of its military biological program in Ukraine, used Mariupol as a regional center for work with the cholera pathogen.
    Evidence was obtained of the emergency destruction of documents confirming work with the US military department. A preliminary analysis of the surviving documentation indicates the use of Mariupol as a regional center for the collection and certification of the cholera pathogen.

    The selected strains were sent to the public health center in Kyiv, which is entrusted with the functions of further sending biomaterials to the United States.
    This activity has been carried out since 2014, which is confirmed by the acts of transfer of strains.

    Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Fox News recalled that the United States supplied weapons to Ukraine long before the start of the Russian special operation.
    “The Biden administration was supplying weapons long before the invasion. The first billion dollars that the president allocated for Ukraine did indeed include assistance with lethal weapons … The United States, Canada, Britain, other allies actually helped prepare the Ukrainians, ”Kirby quoted the TV channel as saying.

    As military experts and analysts had previously assumed, Ukraine would have brought down all its military power on the Donbass in any case, but Russia was the first to come to the aid of Donbass.

    The world is watching. The world sees. Lies are dying.

    • mcswell

      May 11, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Alex: If lies are dying, are you dying with your lies, Alex?

    • Tom

      May 11, 2022 at 7:52 pm

      Hey Boris, Bullwinkle is still laughing at your crazed assertions. Putin made sure the world hates Russia and that is not likely to change anytime soon. Enjoy your rapidly deteriorating standard of living and isolation.

    • redman

      May 11, 2022 at 8:37 pm

      So you are very concerned by a non existent fighter F15 plane?

      The USA is most pleased by your compliment that a fictitious American plane is so much better than an mig29 or any other Russian plane.

    • Jack

      May 12, 2022 at 9:51 am

      The Russians would not have to worry about being tortured if they had not crossed the border

    • AJP1960

      May 12, 2022 at 1:47 pm

      Why has Kherson asked Russia for this? Because the leaders are Russian puppets, that’s why

  2. MAGA MAGA

    May 11, 2022 at 7:08 pm

    MiG-29 is largely obsolete. Sending MiGs to Ukraine would be like sending clay pigeons to the shooting range.

    It’s best to arrange a ceasefire in Ukraine as soon as possible and get the azov and aidar fighters to disengage from combat zones in eastern Ukraine.

    But will biden play ball.The dementia-hit very old man is keen to see all euro hostilities and confrontation continue until Nov 8 2022.

    • Eric

      May 11, 2022 at 9:57 pm

      “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.” oh look I’m not demented, just a neo-fascist.

    • Vladolph Putler

      May 12, 2022 at 11:02 am

      You really discredit your ideology by throwing in with the Russians. Keep it up! 😀 And clearly are more of an idiot than even your name might imply. Politicians serve a purpose as a tool, and though effective at the time, tool he was. WAS.

      Mig 29’s? Potent aircraft. No match for BVR combined with stealth and good ISR, but many have been DEEPLY upgraded, and were a pretty kick ass airframe in the first place, roughly comparable to an F15. And the Mig 29 would not be fighting F35s. Duh. Wait, let me pick my nose a little harder. DUUUH!!! XD

      Russia is throwing all it can at the lines short of nuclear weapons or full mobilization. And quickly losing most of any costly gains they achieve. Ukraine is being highly conservative, though launching offensives. But unlike Russian forces, they are predominantly HOLDING any ground they take.

      Ukraine has no incentive to negotiate.

      But I suppose if one is to get their daily nooze from the most walleyed of right wing sites, one would have no idea of what is really going on. Or perhaps much of anything in general.

  3. redman

    May 11, 2022 at 8:47 pm

    Strange that if Russia came to the aid of Donbass, why have the donbass, separatists been attacking the city of Mariupol.
    Maybe the Donbass separatists need a map, because Mariupol is not in Donbass.

    Mariupol, has the reputation of the most Russian like city in Ukraine, so it seems strange the Russian invasion force reducing the most Russian like city to rubble. This makes nonsense of Russian claims to be protecting all things Russian.

  4. redman

    May 11, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    Putin’s invasion is resembling an old keystone, cops, movie, when you look at all the blunders by the Russian military. What do you expect from a country russia that is 136 in the global corruption index. Corruption in Russia does not magically avoid the military.after all those bureaucrats have to get their share of the corruption rubles.

    After ignoring the famous Italian economist 20/80 ratio which revealed the first invasion of 140,000 had failed, Putin gambled a second invasion with survivors of the first failed invasion, who had no rest.

    Knowing that western weapons were superior to socialist inspired ancient weapons, Putin was like a losing gambler hoping not to go on losing.

    Finally of course the famous Italian economist 20/80 ratio inevitably signals further Russian defeat. This is like hoping that the laws of gravity will not happen, tough luck Putin.

  5. Peace-making nukes of US arsenal

    May 12, 2022 at 12:20 am

    The neo-nazis in Kyiv (who’re backed by the most modern sophisticated capitalist-fascist entity in history) have unequivocally failed in their mission to become an anti-russian redoubt in east Europe if they have to resort to begging for outdated MiGs.

    At least they should sought for available used or refurbished f-4 phantom jets or F-5 fighters.

    Kyiv is finished. Waiting for nukes to bury them for good !

    • Tom

      May 12, 2022 at 6:40 am

      Has anyone told you you’re an idiot? Most all the kit employed by Russia are antiques and Ukraine is kicking your ass with your equipment. How many pop top tanks have been destroyed or captured and used to kill the invaders?

      Putin whimpered about western arms that are far superior. You have a Potemkin army that nobody fears. It has been exposed as poorly trained with low moral. Hell, they even sabotage their own equipment or refuse to fight. A real fearsome group! Using nukes would change the rules of engagement and spell the end of Russia and possibly the world. So, yes you are a blithering idiot.

      Putin is a war criminal and leads a terrorist state that has bit off far more than he can chew. BTW, he’s dying of cancer.

  6. Kevthepope

    May 12, 2022 at 9:30 am

    I’d take the f16 over the Saab and especially the f15 in a multi-role capability any day of the week. The Saab is quite good as well, but this would come down to what each jet is supplied with in terms of avionics. As for the f-15, if it’s purely air defense, sure, better than both, but if it’s something really meant to help the Ukes, like dropping guided munitions over the eastern part of Ukraine, then no, not the right choice. Western Ukraine is relatively safe for now and the existing jets can handle at least Jet attacks, maybe cruise missiles (su-27 better for it than Mig), but they need something to attack the forces in the east. If that occurs, Russia is very hard-pressed to maintain momentum and probably starts serious talks. For austere airfields, nothing does beat the Saab though, and I’d seriously look at all the airworthy Hornets at AMARG as they can also do quite well on those airfields due to their stronger landing gear. Finns sure use them damn well.

    • ExGOPTexas

      May 12, 2022 at 6:40 pm

      Ukraine needs aircraft that will allow it to attack ground targets (while flying under an anti-aircraft umbrella) like the Su-25. The Su-27 is more of an air-to-air asset. Ukraine has Su-25s as does Russia, both of those countries have lost Su-25s.

  7. Eric

    May 12, 2022 at 9:46 am

    I would remind all the Russia supporters that Russian forces are clearly guilty of war crimes as defined in the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, as well as genocide as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. ICC investigations opened on 2 March 2022.

    “Definition
    Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
    Article II

    In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

    Killing members of the group;
    Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
    Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
    Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
    Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

    Russian forces need to be stopped.
    Send the Ukrainians the Migs if they still want them.
    Send the Ukrainians F-15 or F-16 too if they want them.

  8. Vladolph Putler

    May 12, 2022 at 11:05 am

    Oh gosh. Redman up a few posts ^ really nailed it with the gambler analogy.

  9. Alex

    May 12, 2022 at 11:43 am

    OK. In Ukraine, 10,000 Russian and 1,000 Russian tanks are destroyed every day. It’s not even funny to read, but it’s not interesting anymore. Let’s talk about the collapsed Russian economy:

    The Russian ruble has become the best world currency in 2022. On Thursday, May 12, Bloomberg reported.

    According to the latest data, the ruble has grown by 11 percent against the dollar since the beginning of 2022. Thus, it has become the leader among the 31 major currencies monitored by the agency’s experts.

    The strengthening of the currency came after the measures taken by the Russian government against the backdrop of Western sanctions, writes Bloomberg. It is clarified that the authorities introduced capital controls, and also obliged exporters to sell foreign exchange earnings. In particular, in March, the President of Russia announced a new procedure for paying for gas by European consumers.

    As similar examples, the authors of the article cite the Turkish lira and the Argentine peso, which failed to achieve maximum growth rates after the decisions of the governments of these countries. The Russian currency, on the contrary, responded well to the measures taken, Bloomberg experts conclude.

    Only facts, not squeals and fantasies of Bandera Nazis and Slavophobes.

  10. Alex

    May 12, 2022 at 11:43 am

    Russia’s oil revenues have grown by 50% since the beginning of the year, despite trade restrictions imposed after the start of a special operation in Ukraine, writes Bloomberg citing a report by the International Energy Agency.

    “Russia has earned approximately $20 billion monthly since the beginning of 2022 from cumulative sales of oil and petroleum products at an export level of 8 million barrels per day,” the document says. As the IEA noted, supplies from Russia continue to flow despite the fact that the EU is currently discussing a ban on energy imports, and major international oil companies Shell and Total Energy promise to stop purchases.

    Russian energy resources are in high demand in Asia, especially in India and China. Experts emphasize that the reduction in the supply of refined products from Russia, such as diesel fuel, fuel oil and naphtha, has exacerbated tensions on world markets. At the same time, stocks of so-called middle distillates (some types of petroleum products that are obtained as a result of the distillation of hydrocarbons, including heating and marine fuels) are at their lowest level since 2008.

    Another collapse of the Russian economy. I am sure that in Russia they clap and thank you.

    • Tom

      May 12, 2022 at 12:02 pm

      Hey Boris, Did you enjoy seeing your comrades, the rapists and war criminals, trying to cross a river before being killed? The attempt cost a BTG including many lives, tanks, etc. Life is good if you aren’t a Russian troll living in a refrigerator box under a stairwell.

      Bullwinkle feels much better about himself after knowing how dumb you turned out to be. Say hello to Natasha.

      • Alex

        May 12, 2022 at 12:39 pm

        I do not watch videos of fakes from the poorest country in Europe, Ukraine. Read how Biden is considering the possibility of exporting 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine.
        Nazi moron 🙂

        • Tom

          May 12, 2022 at 2:43 pm

          Boris do you still wet the bed, too? How is it living in a third world country?

  11. Douglas Proudfoot

    May 12, 2022 at 5:58 pm

    There were Russian pilots in North Vietnam flying MiG-21s that shot down US pilots. The Russians wouldn’t have much to complain about if Ukrainian pilots were flying US made airplanes.

    • Tom

      May 12, 2022 at 7:01 pm

      US shot down 51 Mig-21s in Viet Nam.

  12. ExGOPTexas

    May 12, 2022 at 6:32 pm

    Mr Farley was close when he talked about the differences between any MiG flown by a NATO country and the MiGs flown by Ukraine (and Russia). The Ukrainian air traffic control, navigation, etc system still runs on Russian frequencies – NATO aircraft would have different radios, different navigational aids, etc etc. When Poland, et al changed their avionics – did they keep the old ones? Probably not. The only large source of those avionics is Russia.

    Russian designed aircraft are built for a lot of maintenance, each Russian fighter has a dedicated truck with spares.

    The aircraft that the Ukrainians need is the Su-25, a ground attack aircraft that is sort of like our A-10. The Ukrainians and Russians are not going to have dogfights which the MiG-29 was designed for. There is too many anti-aircraft systems and both sides would be shooting at anything in the sky.

  13. Jim-SC

    May 12, 2022 at 11:46 pm

    If the end goal over the next several months is transitioning to NATO fighters thus NATO systems, perhaps the Polish and other NATO Mig 29’s and SU 27’s are a good start.

    I suggest that NATO consider the F/A-18 rather than the F-16. It is a carrier plane and thus more robust and capable of handling rougher/repaired runways than the nimble but delicate F-16. Two engines give better survivability. Also it carries more ordinance and has greater range when dealing with a country roughly the same size as Texas plus out into the Black Sea. F/A-18 can also carry long range anti-ship missiles.

  14. Al Aldecoa

    May 13, 2022 at 7:01 am

    The bottom line is that Western leaders still have their finger up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s a lack of courage and leadership.

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