William Taylor: Poland's gesture towards Ukraine might encourage other allies NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer talks to William Taylor, ex-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, about Poland's decision to provide MiG-29s to Ukraine. It may signal new urgency by allies to try to end Russia's invasion.

Ex-U.S. ambassador says Poland's gesture toward Ukraine might encourage other allies

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Poland is sending four fighter jets to Ukraine. It's the first offer of this kind from a NATO nation. And although it doesn't give Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy everything he wants, it may signal new urgency by Ukraine's allies to try to end Russia's invasion. William Taylor was the United States ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. He's now with the U.S. Institute of Peace, and he's on the line with us. Ambassador, thank you for making time this morning.

WILLIAM TAYLOR: Thank you, Sacha. Good to be here.

PFEIFFER: I want to start with a bit of a technical question, which is that there are, of course, different generations of fighter jets. Do you know what kind Poland is offering to Ukraine? Is it newer generation, older generation? How would you assess their quality?

TAYLOR: So, Sacha, these are MiG-29. They were Soviet-era jets. They've been updated, so they are - I wouldn't say state-of-the-art, but they are very modern, very capable. And many NATO allies fly them right now. So they are in the air doing good work. They'll be a real addition for the Ukrainians.

PFEIFFER: And a bigger question in two parts - why are these jets so important to Ukraine, and why have NATO allies been relatively slow to send them?

TAYLOR: So these are important for Ukraine in two respects. One is these aircraft - these fighter aircraft are able to support a ground offensive. As you know, as we all know, the Russians invaded, and they have occupied parts of Ukraine - like, about 20%. The Ukrainians, all they want is to push the Russians back out of their country. They need to do that using military forces at the beginning, and they've got now the ground forces that are coming on, these tanks that we've been talking about for weeks. Now they need the air support. So the first thing that these MiG-29s will do will be to support the ground offensive that the Ukrainians will mount this spring and summer to push the Russians out. The second thing that these Ukrainian pilots will be able to do with these new aircraft is to defend their airspace. The Russians are able now to fire missiles. As we know, the Russians have not been able to succeed on the ground. But the Russians can fire missiles and other bombs, cruise missiles, at civilian targets. So these MiG-29s will be able to counter the Russian aircraft.

PFEIFFER: Well, you're making me more curious about the second question, which is if they are as important as you describe, why did it take so long for Ukraine to be given them?

TAYLOR: So it's a good question. As you have reported, President Zelenskyy has been asking this from the beginning. One of the concerns has been that it'll take time to train on specifically the F-16s. We haven't talked about the F-16s. The MiG-29s are available in country right now, and the Ukrainian pilots can use them. They know exactly how to work, how to fly these...

PFEIFFER: They don't need any training.

TAYLOR: ...And to fight with these. That's correct. The F-16 is different. So we have - the United States has been saying, well, it takes a long time to train on these F-16s. And there's a supply chain issue in terms of support, maintenance parts, those kinds of technical issues, logistical issues that will take some time. And the important thing is to get these weapons to the Ukrainians in the next month or two, for them to be in the fight to push the Russians back out. That needs to happen soon. So the delay has been the F-16s will come later like these tanks. The sophisticated American tanks will also come later. But the MiG-29s are in the theater. They're in Europe. And the Leopard tanks are also in the theater in Europe, and they can be deployed immediately.

PFEIFFER: So four MiG-29s, as we said - that number initially struck me as a small number. How much force do four jets add to Ukraine's fighting capacity?

TAYLOR: Well, it turns out that the Slovakians have just promised 13, and the Poles - you're right. They've said that four are on the way right now, could be delivered within days.

PFEIFFER: So this is just part of a larger fleet eventually.

TAYLOR: It's part of a larger fleet of 28. So there are more to come, and this can help the Ukrainians a lot.

PFEIFFER: Is this move likely to get other allies of Ukraine to feel more pressure to add more powerful and advanced weaponry to Ukraine's arsenal?

TAYLOR: If past is prologue, the answer is yes. We've seen this over and over. When one nation will move forward on providing some weapons, others will follow. Often it's the Americans who will go after another nation has taken this step. So I think the answer is yes. Others, including the United States, could soon make a decision to provide this kind of aircraft.

PFEIFFER: However, the National Security Council spokesman has said that what Poland did is not going to make Biden change his position. How likely do you think that the Biden administration will keep maintaining its position of not supplying Ukraine with aircraft - in about 20 seconds, if you could?

TAYLOR: I think it's unlikely they'll keep maintaining that position. I think soon they will make this - you know, Sacha, there are two Ukrainian pilots reportedly in the United States already for some kind of training. Maybe it's simulation. Maybe it's an assessment. But the signs are very good that the United States will sometime do this.

PFEIFFER: That is former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor. Thank you very much for your insight.

TAYLOR: Thank you, Sacha.

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