Ukraine Situation Report: Slovakia Donating MiG-29 Fighters Is Fine By The U.S.

The U.S. government has no objections to Slovakia transferring its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets to Ukraine, a senior American defense official said today. This comes after a previous plan to give Poland’s MiG-29s to the Ukrainian Air Force collapsed after authorities in the United States said they would not directly facilitate the delivery of the fighters via an American base in Germany.

The Slovakian government says that it would need certain security guarantees before any such transfer could occur. Questions still remain about how quickly the Ukrainian Air Force could get additional MiG-29s, or any other combat jets it might receive, into the fight.

Separately, details surrounding an alleged Russian chemical weapon attack against Ukrainian forces holding out in the strategic southern port city of Mariupol remain, at the very best, murky. Though U.S. officials and others have warned for weeks about the potential for such an attack, no hard evidence has emerged so far and it is all but impossible for independent sources to gain access to the area at present to try to verify the claims.

WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.

Before diving deeper into the latest news below, The War Zone readers can get up to speed first on the present state of conflict in Ukraine here.

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The United States “does not object” to any country, including Slovakia, sending fixed-wing combat aircraft to Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters earlier today. The Pentagon had said this was the U.S. government’s position back in March in relation to the proposed transfer of Polish MiG-29s to the Ukrainian Air Force. However, American authorities had said they were not interested in playing a direct role in the delivery of the Polish jets, ostensibly due to concerns that sending fighter jets to Ukraine would risk a particularly serious escalation in tensions with Russia and a belief that Ukrainian forces could make better use of additional ground-based air defense systems.

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Eduard Heger had floated the idea of sending his country’s MiG-29s to Ukraine yesterday, adding that there would be a need for certain security guarantees before pursuing any such transfer. Though the Slovakian Air Force is set to get new U.S.-made F-16C/D Viper fighter jets in the next few years, its 12 Fulcrums, which have been significantly upgraded over the years, are the only fixed-wing combat aircraft currently in service in the country. It’s not clear how many of the jets could potentially be headed to Ukraine.

Slovakian authorities had outlined similar requirements for donating their S-300PMU surface-to-air missile battery to Ukraine. The Ukrainian military has now received the S-300PMU systems after multiple NATO members, including the United States, deployed Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to Slovakia to make up for the resulting shortfall in air and missile defense capacity in the country. The U.S. military, as well as other NATO allies, could possibly offer to deploy fighter jets to help guard Slovakia’s airspace as part of a new plan to give its MiG-29s to Ukraine.

Whether or not such a transfer ultimately comes to pass remains to be seen. As already noted, there are concerns about how readily the Ukrainian Air Force would be able to absorb any new combat jets into its fleets and support them over a protracted period. Over the course of the fighting so far, Russian forces have struck two key military aviation repair facilities in Ukraine, causing significant damage to both.

At the same time, the Ukrainian Air Force has experience with the MiG-29 platform and has been demonstrating its ability to keep them flying so far. It also currently has more pilots than it has jets, which would mitigate concerns about the need to train additional aviators. It might not be necessary for Ukrainian pilots to learn how to use all the features found on Slovakia’s Fulcrums that aren’t present in the country’s existing examples before getting them into combat, either, though some amount of supplementary instruction would still likely be required.

Slovakia’s Heger told Politico that his country is likely to face difficulties sustaining these jets itself without a “relationship” with Russia. “This is equipment that we want to finish [with] anyway, because we’re waiting for the F-16s,” he added.

Whether or not the boost in air combat capacity that these jets would give the Ukrainian Air Force is necessarily worth the effort is not entirely clear, either.

“They would help us to provide air patrols for the hunting of strikers, low-altitude targets, and some choppers, but it’s not for air dominance, not for air superiority,” a Ukrainian fighter pilot, known by his callsign “Juice,” told The War Zone in an exclusive interview last month. “These MiGs have almost the same radars, a little bit modernized. The MiG is very capable, it’s a great fighter but the main problem is its missiles, and the Polish use the same missiles as we do. That’s why we need to receive something new, with really capable weapons.”

In the meantime, foreign military aid besides fighter jets continues to pour into Ukraine. The U.S. government says that it expects to finish delivering an $800 million military assistance package that President Joe Biden announced last month by mid-April. Two cargo planes arrived in the region just yesterday with machine guns, grenades, body armor, and more for transfer into Ukraine, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

A senior U.S. defense official said today that a “significant amount” of a batch of 100 Switchblade loitering munitions, more commonly referred to as “suicide drones,” has arrived in Ukraine and that these weapons are now in use in the field. You can read more about these weapons, which can be employed by very small units, and their capabilities here.

The U.S. military’s delivery of Switchblades to Ukraine has reportedly been a model of sorts for possible future transfers of weapon systems requiring more substantial training.

The picture below highlights foreign deliveries of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), which have been a key factor in the Ukrainian military’s ability to prevent Russian forces from gaining air superiority over the country so far. The photo shows three individuals, from left to right, with a U.S.-made Stinger, a Polish-made Piorun, and a Soviet-era Igla-series type, the latter of which was already in Ukrainian inventory when the conflict began. You can read more about all three of these MANPADS here.

During a briefing for reporters today, a senior U.S. defense official said that the U.S. government currently cannot confirm or deny that Russian forces carried out an attack involving an unspecified chemical weapon against Ukrainian personnel in the strategic southern port city of Mariupol. They said that a lack of access is the biggest impediment to making any sort of initial assessment about what might have happened.

The U.S. government has explored the possibility that Russia’s units could mix non-lethal riot control agents with lethal chemical weapons to try to mask the latter, but there is no indication necessarily that this is what happened in Mariupol. American officials, among others, have warned multiple times over the past month or so that Russia’s military could launch a chemical weapons attack or otherwise create some other kind of chemical incident, possibly as a false flag.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna (Anna) Malyar says that the country itself having trouble verifying the claims. Malyar said that there were indications that the munitions in question might actually have been white phosphorus incendiary rounds, which do also produce noxious fumes. The U.K. Ministry of Defense had warned about the possibility that Russian forces might employ white phosphorus in Mariupol yesterday. It is important to note that, while the use of white phosphorus is extremely controversial and is prohibited in certain circumstances under international treaties, it does not meet the definition of a chemical weapon according to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Independent experts have further highlighted the limits of what can be determined one way or another so far based on the extremely limited information available at present.

The Azov Battalion, also referred to as the Azov Regiment, a highly controversial neo-Nazi-linked organization currently fighting under the banner of Ukraine’s volunteer Territorial Defense Forces, first alledged that Russian forces had carried out the chemical weapon attack yesterday. So far, no hard evidence has emerged to support or refute this claim.

Yesterday, Eduard Basurin, a spokesperson for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, also known as the DNR, a breakaway area in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that Russia now recognizes as an independent country, did publicly advocate for the use of “chemical troops” to flush out the remaining defenders in Mariupol. However, it’s important to point out that the Russian military’s Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Protection Troops are responsible for employing thermobaric weapons, such as TOS-1A multiple rocket launch systems and the specialized BMO-T armored personnel carriers designed to carry troops armed with shoulder-fired RPO-A launchers, which all very effective against dug-in opponents in urban areas.

At the same time, Russian authorities have accused the Ukrainian government, without providing any evidence, of preparing to stage chemical incidents as provocations. Many have warned could be an indication that Russia is preparing disinformation campaigns in advance to cover its own actions. There is certainly substantial evidence of Russian chemical warfare attacks elsewhere in the world in recent years, but more often as part of assassination operations targeting specific individuals. There are allegations that Russian forces used chemical weapons on a broader scale during the Second Chechen War and the Russian military has been complicit in their use by the Syrian government.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense has released its latest map showing its assessment of the current state of the conflict in Ukraine. British authorities also say that continue to expect a spike in fighting to occur in eastern Ukraine as the Russian military refocuses its efforts there.

More evidence of possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine has emerged. Experts and observers continue to note similarities between the reports from Ukraine and incidents in past conflicts in which Russia has been involved, especially the Second Chechen War.

The video in the Tweet below reportedly shows Ukrainian forces employing British-supplied NLAW guided anti-tank missiles against Russian vehicles.

The picture seen below shows what appears to be Ukrainian volunteer Territorial Defense Forces personnel armed with various weapons, including DP-27 and Maxim M1910 machine guns. The designs of both of those guns predate World War II, but they fire 7.62x54mmR ammunition that is still being actively produced and is in widespread use around the world, including in Russia.

Ukrainian authorities have reportedly detained pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who had already been under house arrest after being indicted on charges of treason before the current conflict erupted.

Russian President Vladimir Putin toured the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia today alongside Beluriasn President Alexander Lukashenko. Putin took the opportunity to reiterate the Russian government’s standing position that it was somehow “forced” to invade Ukraine due to purported threats to national security. Putin and Lukashenko both denied allegations that Russian forces have committed various war crimes during the conflict so far and claimed, without evidence, that the incidents like the massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha had been staged.

Lukashenko who has had a complex relationship with Putin and the Russian government over the years, but has fully moved into Moscow orbit more recently, also quipped that he “used to think my older brother [Putin] might send me there and not bring me back. Now I don’t think so anymore.”

We will continue to update this post with new information until we state otherwise.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.