March 17, 2023 - 1:30pm

In a surprise move, the Slovak government has announced that it will supply 13 MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. Bratislava has been mulling sending the planes for weeks, but appears to have been spurred into action by Poland’s announcement yesterday that it would send four of its own MiGs to Ukraine in the coming days, with more to follow. 

As the first two nations to send fighter jets to Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia have crossed another of the West’s previously stated red lines in arming Kyiv. The question now is whether their initiative will lead other Western powers, capable of supplying more advanced planes, to follow suit. 

The MiG-29 jets now being donated do not alter the technological balance of power in the war. These Soviet-era aircraft are already used by Ukrainian pilots, so deliveries can be considered more as a replenishment of stocks than a qualitative shift in Ukraine’s capabilities. 

The Slovak government gave a particularly modest assessment of the utility of the planes it is donating. Most are not currently operational — three of them don’t have engines — and some will only serve for spare parts. The government said that sending them to Ukraine is a logical way to “get rid of” old planes which would otherwise be left unused. Poland’s jets, meanwhile, are “at the end of their operational life but still functional,” according to Polish President Andrzej Duda. 

Bratislava also stressed that donated planes should be used for protective operations, rather than attacks — although quite where this distinction will be drawn in the event of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive is unclear. Analysts point out that MiGs currently being flown by Ukraine are fitted with Western missiles that can strike targets dozens of miles away, making them capable of playing a supporting role in attacks on Russian positions without coming directly into the line of fire.  

Given their relatively limited set of capabilities, though, the true measure of success for Polish and Slovak plane deliveries may be whether they help break the dam on more advanced fighter jet donations from NATO member states. Poland is being coy about also potentially providing American-made F-16 planes, which would take Ukraine’s aerial abilities up a notch. As it has throughout the war, Warsaw is applying not-so-subtle pressure on the great Western powers to do away with their scruples about giving Ukraine these more advanced systems. 

But there’s a major difference between providing planes that Ukrainians already know how to use and donating newer models that would require months — potentially even years — of training. Speaking on a visit to Warsaw, new Czech President Petr Pavel said that even if a decision were made to send modern Western jets to Ukraine tomorrow, they wouldn’t enter the theatre of conflict until next year. 

This means there’s no time to lose if NATO members do have the appetite for supplying the modern jets that Ukraine craves. And practical concerns may pale in comparison with the moral pressure exerted by the new Polish and Slovak deliveries. Poland has cemented its place at the tip of the spear of Western support for Ukraine, while Slovakia’s crumbling administration can face snap elections later this year claiming that, by pushing Western arms support for Ukraine even further, it is “on the right side of history.”

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of