Slovakia will donate 13 MiG-29 warplanes to Ukraine, its prime minister has said, making it the second Nato member to announce such a shipment in 24 hours, after a similar move by Poland.
It remains to be seen how much the jets will help Ukraine stop Russia’s assaults and break its defensive lines in the counteroffensive expected this spring. Ukraine has asked for modern Typhoons and F-16s; the MiGs it is getting are 30 years old.
Slovakia’s prime minister, Eduard Heger, told a news conference on Friday that his government was “on the right side of history” as he announced it would hand over its fleet of 13 Soviet-era MiGs.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said four would arrive in Ukraine in the coming days but did not state the total it was planning to send.
Western countries have been reluctant to give Ukraine such equipment, which is capable of reaching inside Russia, saying it would take years to train Ukrainian pilots and set up supply chains for maintaining the jets. But the UK has offered to provide air cover for any eastern European allies willing to send jets to Ukraine.
The Associated Press reported that allies would step up to monitor Slovakia’s airspace in light of the absence of its own aircraft. Slovakia will also receive compensation in the form of €200m (£175m) from the EU, and unspecified arms from the US worth €700m, said the defence minister, Jaroslav Naď.
Since January, Ukraine has been asking its allies for modern fighter jets to beat back Russian forces further from their defensive positions along the frontlines and to aid air defence efforts around energy infrastructure, which Russia has been targeting since October.
Ukraine argues that it has proved its capabilities with the equipment the west has provided so far, which has included long-distance rocket systems such as the US-supplied Himars.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Volodymyr Havrylov, told the Guardian in an interview last month that the war would be won on technological superiority, and that was why the country was asking for jets and precision weapons.
If delivered, said Havyrlov, Ukraine could use superior western equipment to push Russians further back from the frontlines. This would effectively counteract the vast numbers of troops Russia can mobilise and avoid the need for close-combat battles, which would save Ukrainian lives.
“With technological superiority, it doesn’t matter how many [troops] they will send to us because we will use this equipment, new equipment and technologies in such a way that we will try to escape direct, close fighting to kill them before they can reach us,” said Havrylov. “To save the lives of our people.”
In Moscow, the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, presented awards to the pilots of two Su-27 fighter planes who were involved in this week’s confrontation with a US drone over the Black Sea.
The ministry said the pilots were decorated for preventing “the violation by the American MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle of the borders of the area of the temporary regime for the use of airspace”.
On Thursday, the Pentagon released footage that showed a Su-27 Flanker jet making two exceptionally close passes of the uncrewed drone, spraying fuel in front of it. The Russian military maintains that the US drone fell from the sky after making a “sharp manoeuvre”.
Ukraine is expected to begin a new offensive in spring with the jets as well as a host of other equipment and ammunition that the west has recently sent.
At present, the vast majority of fighting is along Ukraine’s defensive lines in its eastern Donbas regions. Russia has set itself a goal to reach the administrative borders of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donbas, of which it now occupies about 75%.
But Russia’s eastern offensive has been slow and gruelling, hampered by knee-high mud because of the unusually warm winter and Ukraine’s determination not to cede any more territory, despite it taking heavy casualties.
Western officials estimate Russia has sustained between 20,000 and 30,000 casualties in the Donetsk city of Bakhmut, where the fighting has been the most concentrated for months. But Ukraine’s losses are also high.
Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, have argued that retreating from Bakhmut would only place yet another Ukrainian town on the frontline and that Ukrainian forces are knocking out a substantial amount of Russian soldiers.
Russia has been systematically pushing its way westwards through the Donbas since last spring using its superior artillery stocks and bombing Ukrainian defensive lines, forcing them to retreat and leaving a trail of destruction. Aside from Bakhmut, Russian forces have all but flattened the Donetsk region towns of Popasna, Kremina, Lysychansk, Vuhledar, Mariianka and Soledar.
But military analysts said Ukraine’s disadvantageous positions in Bakhmut, where it is surrounded on three sides, outweighed any possible gains.
Others have said the reason for staying in Bakhmut is more political than practical, with Zelenskiy not wanting to admit defeat in a defence he earlier described as “Fortress Bakhmut”. Ukraine is said to have created fallback positions not far from the western edge of Bakhmut but the order to retreat has not been given.
One commander from the 46 air assault brigade, which is stationed in Bakhmut, stated in an interview with the Washington Post this week that the scale of losses could harm Ukraine’s chances of conducting a successful counteroffensive in the coming months.
Ukraine’s general staff demoted him for his unsanctioned comments. Soldiers who served under the commander have expressed their dismay on social media at the decision and the silencing of military personnel, describing him as “one of the best”.
“It is not the president who inspires the personnel,” said Volodymyr Shevchenko, from the same brigade.
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