Content:
  1. FIRST STEPS TOWARDS THE COALITION AND POSITIONS OF POTENTIAL MEMBERS
  2. BOILING THE FROG. THE US’ MULTILATERAL POSITION
  3. FOUR FACTORS THAT MAY AFFECT THE US POSITION

Ukraine has taken the first steps toward an aviation coalition to get 40-50 F-16s. The main advocates are the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, but the final decision will depend on the United States. And Washington's position remains uncertain.

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"I think there will be no real aviation coalition without America. The American role is very important," Volodymyr Dubovyk, a professor and lecturer at Tufts University (Boston, U.S.), told LIGA.net. "I think there will be some pressure, including from Congress.

Delving into the intricacies of Ukraine's aviation coalition formation, LIGA.net examines the potential hurdles that could impede the country's acquisition of the F-16.

FIRST STEPS TOWARDS THE COALITION AND POSITIONS OF POTENTIAL MEMBERS

United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France have joined the aviation coalition, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy assured after returning from his European tour. According to him, London and Amsterdam will lead it.

Britain will begin basic training for Ukrainian pilots on Western-style aircraft this summer and is ready to play a key role. London and Amsterdam will facilitate the creation of a coalition to provide everything from training to the purchase of F-16s, Downing Street assured.

The Netherlands is considering the possibility of supplying Ukraine with F-16s together with its partners, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on May 9. In particular, they are working with Britain and Denmark on the issue.

France is opening its doors to pilot training, but will not provide aircraft, President Emmanuel Macron said. According to him, discussions on fighter jets are ongoing, but it's time to start training.

Belgium can also train pilots, its government says. However, it cannot provide F-16s because they defend the airspace of the Baltic States and the Benelux.

Germany has welcomed the coalition, but will not provide aircraft from its own stockpile. According to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, this is not a priority. Besides, Germany and Britain do not have the F-16s that Ukraine is asking for, explains Defense Minister Boris Pistorius.

Poland has said it cannot provide F-16s because it does not have enough of them. But it is ready to continue supplying Soviet MiG-29s.

Denmark has not made any recent statements regarding the aircraft. But during Zelenskyy's visit to the northern EU countries, Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen explained that the decision should be made jointly with partners.

So far, most of the statements have been about the start of pilot training, but the supply of fighter jets will be discussed by NATO defense ministers in June. The head of the delegation to the NATO PA, MP Yehor Cherniev (Servant of the People), does not rule it out: Britain may announce its readiness to provide a certain number of its Typhoons (Eurofighter) to push other countries.

"We will not be against the transfer of such aircraft," the Ukrainian lawmaker tells LIGA.net, "but we expect that the main combat aircraft will be the F-16... This is an American aircraft, and that is why the United States will have the final say."

BOILING THE FROG. THE US’ MULTILATERAL POSITION

So far, the US position looks uncertain, Oleksandr Kraiev, director of the North America Program at the Foreign Policy council "Ukrainian Prism", explains to LIGA.net.

On the one hand, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin has not objected to the supply of F-16s by the allies and allowed the transfer of these fighters, but not at this stage of the war. On the other hand, The New York Times writes that the United States allegedly has not yet agreed to even train Ukrainian pilots directly on F-16s.

According to the NYT, one of the reasons for the current position of Washington is the fear that F-16s will be expensive: They will "eat up" a large part of the $43 billion allocated for the year, leaving not enough money for other needs of Ukraine.

This version was partially confirmed by Pentagon advisor Celeste Wallander, who called the F-16s "about eighth" on the list of priorities.

"The question is whether to provide more artillery and shells for air defense, or to give a couple of planes – and then the money can quickly run out... Will it be enough until the end of the budget year?" Tufts University professor Volodymyr Dubovyk explains to LIGA.net, "And how quickly will the administration need to go to Congress and ask for a new aid package. And there may be problems in Congress because of the position of some Republicans. The administration is hesitating."

According to Dubovyk, theoretically, this problem can be solved as follows:

- Through the lend-lease mechanism, which allows the US president to allocate aid without the consent of Congress. But then Ukraine will have to pay for the F-16s that survived the war and which it wants to keep

- supplying cheaper used F-16s;

- transfer of F-16s from other countries.

Also, the United States continues to be influenced by reluctance for potential escalation on the part of Russia, the professor said. According to him, this factor has now significantly decreased compared to the summer or fall of last year as the successes of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, such as the downing of the Kinzhal missiles, help to reduce this fear.

"The United States believed that if they gave something, there would be a significant escalation, but this did not happen," adds Dubovyk. "Russia has already used its escalation potential to a large extent, except for weapons of mass destruction.

However, the United States still treats the nuclear threat as a mathematical function, argues Kraiev: "It's constantly approaching zero, but it's never zero... The US is trying not to give everything at once, so as not to provoke an overreaction from Russia. They are boiling this Russian frog."  

FOUR FACTORS THAT MAY AFFECT THE US POSITION

1. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl is stepping down in July. US media calls him one of the opponents of the F-16 for Ukraine.

According to Kraiev, his resignation will be beneficial for Ukraine: "When making decisions in the Pentagon, it is important how many key figures support it or not. This is the American military democracy. If the majority of Austin's deputies are in favor, then he is more likely to say yes."

The significance of Kahl's resignation should be neither exaggerated nor understated, Dubovyk believes. Personalities are important, and this may slightly increase the likelihood of the F-16 supply – but the key decisions will still be made in the White House: "Biden is very experienced in foreign policy. As far as I understand, he will listen to everyone, but he will make his own decisions."

2. The threat of a technical default in the United States. The country is nearing the legal debt limit. Biden is negotiating with congressional leaders to raise the ceiling. In the domestic political discourse, this may intensify the rhetoric about the need to cut spending.

"This situation does not directly affect the F-16 [issue]," says Dubovyk. "I think there will be a way out of this. This is not a precedent in the American political system."

According to Kraiev, there should be no problems with the US budget – both Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Republican) say they will soon strike a deal. In addition, the United States annually budget for a minimum 13% increase in defense spending, the expert said: "Next year is no exception... It is manipulation to say that 40-50 aircraft will be a huge problem with such a budget."

3. Pressure from Congress. 14 Republicans and Democrats have already called on Biden to unblock the delivery of F-16s to Ukraine without delay. According to Dubovyk, the pressure from Congress will continue.

"France, Britain, and other countries are already saying that they are ready to train pilots or provide some aircraft. So we need to follow suit," the professor describes possible arguments.

According to him, there are also many people in the American political community who consider assistance to Ukraine a good investment.

"It's a small part of our military budget," he says, "but it's in our national interest to support Ukraine and counter Russia.

4. Ukraine's diplomatic efforts. Zelenskyy's two large-scale European tours gave impetus to the development of an aviation coalition and increased military aid. However, the factor of diplomatic efforts that were made before the visits played a role in this, Dubovyk believes.

"The president is quite influential. When he asks for something, it is sometimes difficult to refuse," the professor believes. "But there is some pressure behind the scenes... Diplomacy, the efforts of the government and the president have an impact. Constantly pushing partners in the right direction makes a difference."

And the opportunity to push our partners will come soon. On Friday, as former Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin tells LIGA.net, the crucial G7 summit, to which Zelenskyy has been invited, begins in Hiroshima. And in July, the Vilnius NATO summit takes place, preparations for which are in full swing.