By Andrew Thornebrooke
Ukraine will receive F-16 fighter jets from the Netherlands and Denmark for use in its ongoing defense against the Russian invasion, officials announced on Aug. 20.
Dutch and Danish leadership agreed to give the warplanes to Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, bringing a vital spark of hope to the embattled nation which has seen its summer counteroffensive stymied by hundreds of miles of Russian minefields.
While Kyiv has sought advanced warplanes from the West for months, it has until now been prevented from obtaining the U.S.-made aircraft by the United States, possibly because of concern that they could be used to attack the Russian homeland, thereby further escalating the war in Europe.
U.S. President Joe Biden agreed to allow the sales to move forward on Aug. 18, however, setting in motion Ukraine’s acquisition of the long-sought fighter jets.
“[The] F-16 will certainly give new energy, confidence, and motivation to fighters and civilians,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a message to the Ukrainian armed forces. “I’m sure it will deliver new results for Ukraine and the entire [European region].”
Mr. Zelenskyy added on his Telegram channel that Ukraine would obtain 42 jets in all, although neither the Netherlands nor Denmark has confirmed that number.
Pilot Training Timeline Unclear
Much about the deal remains unclear, including precisely how many warplanes Ukraine will receive and how much time will pass before their pilots are flying the F-16 through Ukrainian and, possibly, Russian skies.
In addition to training fighter and support crews, Ukraine will also need to ensure that it has the proper infrastructure to store and defend the U.S.-made jets.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte met with Zelenskyy over the weekend and visited a Dutch air base, where Mr. Rutte suggested that the aircraft could be operating before winter.
“The F-16s will not help immediately now with the war effort,” Mr. Rutte said. “It is anyway a long-term commitment from the Netherlands.”
“We want them to be active and operational as soon as possible. … Not for the next month—that’s impossible—but hopefully soon afterward.”
The Netherlands currently has 42 F-16s. The nation, like Denmark, is free to give most or all of them away, since it’s planning to replace the aircraft with the newer, fifth-generation F-35. It’s unclear, however, how many of them will be delivered to Ukraine or held for training purposes.
Similarly, Mr. Zelenskyy also met over the weekend with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who said that Denmark will deliver 19 jets in total, with the first six due to be shipped to Ukraine around the New Year, followed by eight more in 2024 and five in 2025.
“We know that your freedom is our freedom,” Ms. Frederiksen told Mr. Zelenskyy at a news conference in Denmark. “We also know that you need more [weapons].”
Officials previously estimated that Ukraine would need six to eight months of training on the F-16 before flying them in combat, although one EU official said that planning for the training was in effect as early as May.
Mr. Zelenskyy hasn’t clarified how many Ukrainian pilots will be trained on the system, but Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on Aug. 19 said that training had already begun for its pilots. He added, however, that it would take six months or more to train the engineers and mechanics required to service the F-16s.
Ukraine has so far been relying on a limited number of older aircraft, such as the Soviet-era MiG-29, to defend its embattled territory. The F-16s will present Ukraine with newer technology and targeting capabilities, as well as an aircraft capable of much more versatile missions.
Danish Defense Minister Jakob Ellemann-Jensen congratulated Ukraine on the acquisition, saying in a public statement that he was proud of the role of Denmark and the Netherlands in securing the deal.
“It makes me proud that Denmark, together with the Netherlands, will donate F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine’s fight for freedom against Russia and its senseless aggression,” Mr. Ellemann-Jensen said.
“Denmark’s support for Ukraine is unwavering, and with the donation of F-16 aircraft, Denmark is now leading the way.”
Strikes on Civilian Targets Amid Stalemate
The F-16s are likely to bolster hopes for the prospect of Ukraine’s slow-going counteroffensive in the Russian-occupied east. Thus far, the effort has lagged as a result of hundreds of miles of Russian minefields and a lack of air superiority, which has frequently placed Ukrainian troops at the mercy of Russian air and artillery assets.
The deal comes amid a series of escalations by both Russia and Ukraine, as each side attempts to use drone strikes against nonmilitary targets to weaken the other’s resolve. The escalation in long-range strikes has led each nation to accuse the other of terrorism for apparent strikes on civilian targets.
Moscow claims it shot down three drones on July 29, one in Odintsovo District near Moscow, and two more in an upscale area of Moscow proper.
Russian authorities claimed at the time that the attacks didn’t result in any casualties and caused only insignificant damage. Photos and video footage of the aftermath, however, demonstrated a corner of a single floor of a high-rise building in the Moscow City Complex was destroyed.
Mr. Zelenskyy acknowledged the drone strikes in Moscow during a speech, saying that it was fair the war should come to the homeland of “Russian terrorists.”
“Ukraine is getting stronger,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, according to an official transcript of the speech. “Gradually, the war is returning to the territory of Russia—to its symbolic centers and military bases, and this is an inevitable, natural, and absolutely fair process.”
Mr. Zelenskyy didn’t specify whether the strikes were conducted by Ukrainian forces.
For its part, Russia is increasing drone and missile strikes against Ukrainian food infrastructure, endangering the nation’s food supply and sending worldwide grain prices upward. The effort is part of a wider campaign by Russia to limit or destroy Ukraine’s ability to feed itself and much of the world, according to the State Department.
Relatedly, Russia has announced that all ships proceeding to Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea will be considered potential carriers of military cargo for an enemy state, regardless of whether they’re flagged as civilian ships.
Moscow also continues bombing civilian centers, such as that in Chernihiv on Aug. 18, which killed seven people and wounded more than 100 others, including children.
Mr. Zelenskyy, in a video address delivered on Aug. 20, vowed stern retaliation for the Russian missile strikes.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.