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PRAGUE — Slovakia’s government approved a plan Friday to give Ukraine its fleet of 13 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, becoming the second NATO member country to heed the Ukrainian government’s pleas for warplanes to help defend against Russia’s invasion.
Prime Minister Eduard Heger said during a news conference announcing the decision that his government was “on the right side of history.” Earlier, Heger tweeted that military aid was key to ensuring that Ukraine can defend itself and all of Europe against Russia.
Poland announced Thursday that it would give Ukraine around a dozen MiG-29s. Poland and Slovakia had indicated previously that they were ready to grant Ukraine’s requests for military aircraft, but only as part of a wider international coalition.
Until Poland’s surprise announcement Thursday that it would send a first batch of four MiG-29s within days, NATO countries, including the United States, had refrained from providing jets, even aging or damaged Soviet-era ones.
Heger said his government’s move “is closely coordinated with the Polish side, Ukraine and other allies.”
The Kremlin brushed off Poland’s pledge, saying Friday that the jets would not affect the war’s outcome.
“All this equipment will be subject to destruction,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “It seems that these countries really want to dispose of their old unnecessary equipment this way.”
Peskov said the promised planes were another example of NATO members “raising the level of their direct involvement in the conflict.”
“The equipment deliveries … may bring more misfortune to Ukraine and Ukrainian people,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters.
Slovakia will receive $213 million from the European Union as compensation and unspecified arms from the United States worth $745 million in exchange for giving its MiG-29 fleet to Ukraine, Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked Western countries for fighter jets, but NATO allies held off, citing concern about escalating the alliance’s role in the war.
In response to Poland’s announcement, the White House said Warsaw’s move would have no bearing on President Joe Biden, who has resisted calls to provide U.S. F-16s to Ukraine and that it was up to other nations to explain their own positions.
Michał Baranowski, managing director of Warsaw-based GMF East, part of the German Marshall Fund think tank, said changing conditions now permit such a move since the initial reluctance to respond to Ukraine’s request.
“Many red lines have been crossed since that discussion last year,” Baranowski told The Associated Press by phone. Sending MiGs now “is not the same difficult political sale that it was last year.”
Ukraine will be able to use the MiGs immediately without needing any training.
Zelenskyy appealed directly to Heger for aircraft at an EU summit in Brussels last month.
Slovakia grounded its MiGs in the summer because of a lack of spare parts and expertise to help maintain them after Russian technicians returned home. In the absence of its own aircraft, fellow NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic stepped in to monitor Slovak airspace.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine had several dozen MiG-29s it inherited in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but it’s unclear how many remain in service after more than a year of fighting.
The Slovak government that made the decision to sign a bilateral deal with Ukraine for the jets has only limited powers after a December no-confidence vote brought down the coalition government that was formed after the country’s 2020 election.
Slovakia signed a deal to buy 14 U.S. F-16 Block 70/72 fighter jets, but delivery was pushed back two years to early 2024.
The Russian Embassy in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, contended that such a transfer would be illegal, claiming in a statement that “relevant Russian-Slovak agreements explicitly prohibit any transfer of weapons and military hardware to third countries without consent from the country of origin,” Russia’s Tass news agency reported.
Robert Fico, who resigned as Slovakia’s prime minister in 2018 amid corruption allegations involving organized crime, has insisted that the constitution bars the acting prime minister from making a decision on warplanes. He told a recent news conference that Heger is “either completely stupid” or taking orders from the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava.
Information for this article was contributed by Karel Janicek and Vanessa Gera of The Associated Press and by Andrew Higgins of The New York Times.
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