The Ironic Saga Of Ukraine’s Newly Donated MiG-29 Fulcrums

The MiG-29s with very colorful pasts being sent to reinforce Ukraine will ironically end up fighting Russia with the backing of NATO.

byThomas Newdick|
MIG-29 Ukraine Poland
(Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)


While the transfer of the first donated MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets to Ukraine — from Slovakia and Poland — has been widely reported, including by The War Zone, the origin story of these aircraft is both complicated and fascinating. After all, while the original Ukrainian MiG-29 fleet that’s borne the brunt of the air war against Russia was inherited from the Soviet Union, the Polish and Slovakian Fulcrum fleets, portions of which are now arriving in Ukraine, have additional roots in former Czechoslovakia and East Germany, reunified Germany, as well as post-Soviet Russia. As such, it is beyond ironic that these Soviet-designed jets, many of which were first delivered to take on NATO in a fight, and that have been handed down across multiple air forces, will end their careers fighting against Russia with the backing of NATO.

First off, it’s worth reminding ourselves about the MiG-29s that have actually been committed to Ukraine so far by NATO countries in Eastern Europe and their current status.

Last month, Warsaw kicked off the MiG-29 transfer process when it formally announced that it would provide at least a portion of its Fulcrum fleet to Ukraine. Polish President Andrzej Duda said that, initially, four Polish MiG-29s would be handed over to Kyiv, while “the rest are being prepared, serviced.” Reportedly, Poland will transfer 14 of the aircraft, from a total current fleet of around 28. The first four Polish MiG-29s are reported to have arrived in Ukraine earlier this month, although there’s so far been no imagery to confirm this, or which particular jets were involved.

Slovakia quickly followed Poland’s announcement last month, when it made an official decision to provide Ukraine with more MiG-29s, a process that would be “closely coordinated with the Polish side, with Ukraine and, of course, with other allies,” according to Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger.

The Slovakian government approved the transfer of 13 MiG-29s to Ukraine. Of these 13, there are different accounts of how many will actually be provided in an airworthy status and how many will be used solely as a source of spare parts. Some reports suggest that 10 moderately modernized jets will be introduced to Ukrainian service, while three non-upgraded examples will be used for spares. What we do know for sure is that four of the Slovakian MiGs were flown to Ukraine in late March, becoming the first tactical jets to be supplied to Kyiv since Russia launched its full-scale invasion last year.

It's worth noting that a third NATO member in Eastern Europe also still flies MiG-29s. This is Bulgaria, although the country’s defense ministry recently ruled out a transfer of the jets to Ukraine, at least for now, stating that such a move “would lead to a deficit of capabilities.”

Slovakian MiG-29s

Slovakia emerged from the dissolution of Czechoslovakia at the end of December 1992 and the fleet of MiG-29s formerly operated by the Czechoslovak Air Force was divided between the new nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Ten MiG-29s (one of them a two-seater) were inherited by Slovakia from the former Czechoslovak Air Force and these remained the country’s primary air defense fighters, serving at Sliač Air Base until their withdrawal last year. This is in stark contrast to the Czech Republic, which fairly rapidly disposed of the MiG-29s that it received from Czechoslovak Air Force stocks.

A Slovakian Air Force MiG-29A, in its original Czechoslovak camouflage scheme, in July 1994. This aircraft later went into storage at Sliač Air Base. Mike Freer/Wikimedia Commons

In fact, such was the importance of the MiG-29 to Slovakia that the country ordered another 14 examples (including a pair of two-seaters) from Russia, which were received in two batches in 1993–94 and 1995–96. Specifically, these appear to have been Russian-standard MiG-29s, rather than the MiG-29A export equivalent that was slightly downgraded for export to Warsaw Pact clients. Over the years, at least four Slovakian MiGs were lost in accidents, while others were put in museums.

With Slovakia joining NATO in 2004, efforts were made to make its MiG-29s ‘NATO-compatible,’ since it had no immediate plans to give them up. The result was the unique MiG-29AS (single-seat) and MiG-29UBS (two-seat) modernization program, with the upgrade being integrated by Russian Aircraft Corporation (RAC) MiG with participation from Rockwell Collins and BAE Systems, between 2005 and 2008.

A Slovak Air Force MiG-29A in July 1996. Chris Lofting/Wikimedia Commons

Under the modernization program, the Slovakian MiG-29s received AN/APX-113 identification friend or foe (IFF), AN/ARC-210 radio, AN/ARN-147 VHF omnidirectional range/instrument landing system (VOR/ILS) as well as the AN/ARN-153 tactical air navigation (TACAN) system. A Russian MFI-54 display and PUS-29 data input panel were provided in the cockpit. Some of the upgraded aircraft, of which there were 12 in all, also received a distinctive ‘digital’ camouflage scheme.

Post-modernization, some Slovakian MiGs received this unique ‘digital’ camouflage scheme. This example added tiger stripes on the rudders for the 2011 NATO Tiger Meet. Rob Schleiffert/Wikimedia Commons

When the last Slovakian Fulcrums were retired in August last year, it was widely reported that the final fleet comprised around 11 operational jets — a mix of moderately upgraded MiG-29AS single-seaters and MiG-29UBS two-seaters.

The withdrawal of the MiGs (followed by their transfer to Ukraine) leaves Slovakia with no current fighter equipment. In their place, the air defense of the country is entrusted to the Czech Air Force, using JAS 39C/D Gripen fighter jets flying from their home base in the neighboring country. The Polish Air Force is also involved in the same joint air policing initiative.

This arrangement is set to continue until the end of this year and will likely be extended beyond that, until the first of 14 new F-16 Block 70 fighter jets arrive, expected sometime in 2024. The F-16s were ordered from the United States in 2018 and these advanced jets will feature the APG-83 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a modernized cockpit, and conformal fuel tanks, marking a significant advance over the old MiGs.

So far, video evidence confirms the identities of two of the Slovakian MiG-29s that have been delivered to Ukraine. These are MiG-29AS 6124 and MiG-29AS 2123 both delivered by Russia in the mid-1990s. There are also unconfirmed reports that one of the jets flown to Ukraine was MiG-29AS 0619, another Russian-supplied jet, one that wears the ‘digital’ camouflage scheme.

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Polish MiG-29s

Compared to the story of the Slovakian Fulcrums, the origins of the Polish Air Force’s MiG-29 fleet are somewhat more complex.

Warsaw signed a contract for MiG-29s with what was then the Soviet government in March 1989 and the first of these jets began to arrive in Poland later the same year. The initial Fulcrum force comprised 12 aircraft — nine single-seat MiG-29A fighters and three two-seat MiG-29UB trainers. The Polish pilots trained on the Fulcrum at Frunze in what was then the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, and the first Polish Air Force unit was established at Mińsk-Mazowiecki, east of Warsaw, in the summer of 1989.

In the early 1990s, the Polish Air Force was still dominated by aging MiG-21 Fishbed fighter jets, in many different variants, and with a need to replace these, Poland saw an opportunity to boost its Fulcrum fleet, thanks to the division of Czechoslovakia.

Ground crew prepare a Polish Air Force MiG-29A during a joint French-Polish exercise in Mińsk-Mazowiecki, Poland. The fighter wears the brown and green camouflage scheme that was initially still worn by the former Czechoslovak jets. Photo by Piotr Malecki/Getty Images

As mentioned before, the division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia saw air force assets split between the two newly independent states. While Slovakia held onto its MiG-29s, the Czech Republic was less enthusiastic and looked forward to giving up its Soviet-designed aircraft sooner rather than later.

A Warsaw Pact member like Poland, Czechoslovakia had also begun to receive MiG-29s in early 1989 and also sent crews to Frunze for conversion training. At one point, Czechoslovakia had planned to order 40 MiG-29s, but once the transition from communism had begun, this was scaled back to 18 MiG-29A fighters and two MiG-29UB trainers that entered service at Žatec Air Base in the northwest of the country.

A Czechoslovak Air Force MiG-29A during an airshow appearance in the United Kingdom in July 1991. Anthony Noble/Wikimedia Commons

As it was, the 10 former Czechoslovak Air Force Fulcrums inherited by the Czech Republic had been put into storage after their withdrawal in June 1994. In December 1995, Warsaw and Prague signed an exchange deal that would see the transfer of the nine MiG-29As and one MiG-29UB to Poland, together with spare parts, equipment, and armament. In return, the Czech Republic would receive 11 new W-3 Sokól utility helicopters from the Polish PZL-Świdnik company. After reactivation, the former Czech MiG-29s joined the Polish Air Force at Mińsk-Mazowiecki, initially still wearing their Czechoslovak brown and green camouflage scheme.

Another MiG-29A, this time in service with the newly independent Czech Republic and seen at Yeovilton in the United Kingdom during celebrations for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, in June 1994. This aircraft was later operated by the Polish Air Force. Mike Freer/Wikimedia Commons

With Poland joining NATO in 1999, it, too, needed to make changes to its MiGs to ensure these aircraft could better operate as part of the alliance. Under a deal with DASA of Germany, at least 16 of Poland’s then 22 MiG-29s received new communications, navigation, and identification gear, with additional equipment including ANV-241MMR VOR/ILS, AN/ARN-153 TACAN, and Trimble 2101AP GPS receiver. Other new items comprised a French-made Thompson-CSF radar warning receiver, a Polish IFF system, and a new VHF/UHF radio. At the same time, the Polish jets were repainted in a new multi-tone gray camouflage scheme.

With Poland becoming an ever more important and active NATO member, in late 2001, Germany offered to sell its remaining MiG-29s to Warsaw.

How Germany ended up as a Fulcrum operator is, of course, a story in its own right.

Back in 1988, Germany was still divided, with the Federal Republic, a NATO member, in the west, and the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, part of the Warsaw Pact, in the east. The GDR became the first Warsaw Pact recipient of the MiG-29, with a total of 20 MiG-29As and four MiG-29UBs delivered between March 1988 and May 1989, to Preschen Air Base in the Far East of the country, close to the Polish border.

A TV report from the German Democratic Republic documenting the transfer of the GDR MiG-29 fleet to the Luftwaffe, at Preschen, in 1990:

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For a brief period, the Fulcrum was the pride of the GDR’s air force, but when Germany was reunified in October 1990, the MiG-29s ended up with the Luftwaffe, the air arm of the former Federal Republic. Although it inherited the assets of the GDR’s air force, Germany didn’t keep many of these aircraft for long. The exception was the MiG-29, which, after a period of evaluation, was introduced to the frontline Luftwaffe, the fleet moving to a new base at Laage in the east of the country.

For service with their new NATO operator, between 1991 and 1995 the 24 German Fulcrums also received new IFF, new VHF/UHF radio, and TACAN equipment, as well as English-language cockpit instrumentation, in an effort supported by RAC MiG. Unofficially, the modified jets were known as the MiG-29G and MiG-29GT (two-seater) and it was decided that they would be flown for another 12 years.

Head-on view of a German MiG-29 after its transfer to the Luftwaffe. Bundeswehr/Presse- und Informationszentrum der Luftwaffe

As well as having a unique position in the Luftwaffe as the service’s only former GDR equipment to be retained in active service, the MiG-29s soon developed a reputation as formidable — and very useful — adversaries for other air forces around the world. Many of the secrets of the Fulcrum were revealed to NATO and other pilots during dissimilar air combat training with the Soviet-built jets, which frequently pushed their opposition to the limits, achieving much success in mock combat engagements, including at Red Flag. They were in extremely high demand and were something akin to stars of the fighter community. You can read all about what this was like here.

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But the Fulcrums were more than just opposing forces (OPFOR) aggressor assets, also being part of Germany’s and NATO’s quick reaction forces.

A German Luftwaffe MiG-29 caught in the sights of a U.S. Navy F/A-18C during an exercise over Germany in September 1998. U.S. Navy/Naval Aviation News

At one point, there was even discussion about Germany buying more MiG-29s from Russia to expand its Fulcrum fleet, but the forthcoming arrival of the Eurofighter EF2000 finally determined the fate of the Soviet-made fighter. It was at this point, that Germany offered its remaining MiG-29s to Poland. Poland happily accepted in January 2002, taking 22 of the Luftwaffe, including four MiG-29UBs, for a symbolic 1 Euro per aircraft. Ground equipment and armament were also included.

A pair of German Luftwaffe MiG-29s lead a formation of NATO fighter jets during dissimilar air combat training in May 1995. The other aircraft, from left to right, are two U.S. Air Force F-16Cs, two Italian Air Force F-104S Starfighters, and two German Luftwaffe F-4F Phantom IIs. U.S. Air Force

Poland selected the 14 best-maintained German MiGs for refurbishment and continued operations, while the remaining seven were to be used as a source of spares. The German MiG-29s were delivered to Poland between September 2003 and August 2004 and the growing Polish fleet allowed a new operating base for the type to be established at Malbork in northwestern Poland.

A pair of Polish Air Force two-seat MiG-29UBs at Malbork Air Base, Poland in August 2021. Photo by Cuneyt Karadag/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Once again — and in a turn of events that seems even more remarkable today — RAC MiG assisted in the overhauls for the ex-German MiGs, 10 of which underwent structural reinforcements to extend the airframe life. Avionics were also upgraded to the Polish standard, although the Luftwaffe navigation systems were retained. The first examples of the completely overhauled MiG-29s were delivered to Malbork in the second half of 2005.

Drawn from various sources, the MiG-29s have served the Polish Air Force well, but their days now appear to be numbered. The Fulcrums survived the introduction of the F-16C/D, with the Polish Air Force acquiring 48 F-16C/D Block 52 jets that were delivered between 2006 and 2008. However, with Ukraine demanding fighter equipment and with Poland set to receive other new combat aircraft in the near future, it was decided that divestment of the MiG-29 fleet could finally begin.

A Polish MiG-29 (foreground) and F-16 perform for the camera. Polish Armed Forces

In January 2020, the U.S. and Polish governments signed an agreement to provide the Polish Air Force with 32 F-35A stealth fighters, with initial deliveries due to begin to a U.S.-based training unit in 2024, followed by deliveries to Poland in 2026. The F-35 will provide a massively capable Fulcrum successor, but before these jets arrive in the Eastern European country, the Polish Air Force will also receive 48 Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50PL light combat jets, which you can read more about here.

The first 12 Polish FA-50PL aircraft, in an interim standard, are scheduled to be delivered this summer, with the next batch of 36 aircraft, in Block 20 configuration, to arrive beginning in 2025. The Block 20 jets will feature active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, Sniper targeting pod, and Link 16 datalink, among other changes.

The first of Poland’s new FA-50PL Fighting Eagle light combat jets was rolled out in South Korea last month. KAI

At this stage, we don’t know which of the Polish MiG-29s are being transferred to Ukraine and from which source they originated.

With Poland and now Slovakia starting to provide MiG-29s to Ukraine, this is clearly a watershed moment in terms of arms transfers to Kyiv since the start of the war. Previously, of course, calls for new fighter equipment had gone unanswered, partially amid concerns that such a move could further escalate the conflict.

Before long we will no doubt learn more about the additional MiG-29s being transferred to Ukraine from Poland and Slovakia, and their precise origins. It seems inevitable, however, that Ukrainian ownership — and combat against the Russian aggressor — will be the most eventful chapter in these aircraft’s already long and dynamic histories, and one that is so ironic it wouldn't be believed if it were fiction.

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