After months of refusing Ukraine’s public requests for modern combat aircraft, President Joe Biden told allies he would back an international plan to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets, U.S. officials said Friday.
The turnabout came as Biden met his counterparts ahead of the G7 conference this weekend in Hiroshima, Japan, a senior Administration official said. The U.S. and its allies will decide in the coming months “when to actually provide jets, how many we will provide, and who will provide them,” the official said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior leaders have long appealed to the West for fighter jets to help repel Russia’s daily air assaults. The Biden Administration has told them the capability was unnecessary at this stage in the war. All along, Kyiv’s hope has been that Biden’s “no” would turn to “yes.”
Read more: Why NATO is Giving Ukraine Air Defense Systems, Not Fighter Jets.
From the start of Russia’s invasion in Feb. 2022, Biden has repeatedly balked at requests to send high-end weapons such as HIMARS, Abrams tanks and other hardware, only to later relent and provide them. The pressure on Biden to provide F-16s steadily built in recent months as European nations have stated their willingness to provide the American-made jets to Ukraine—a transfer that can only take place with U.S. permission.
Now that Biden has given his blessing, the Administration hopes the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16s can begin in the coming weeks. “This training will take place outside Ukraine at sites in Europe and will require months to complete,” the senior Administration official said. Under this timeline, the F-16s will not be used in Ukraine’s upcoming counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces in the south and east.
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Allies indicated their willingness to participate in the training. “We welcome the upcoming approval by the United States of the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets,” Netherlands Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said on Twitter. “Together with our close allies Denmark, Belgium and the UK we are working on the modalities. We stand ready to support Ukraine on this.”
The U.S. and its allies have played a central role in preparing Ukraine’s forces. More than 4,600 Ukrainian soldiers have completed combat training, including two brigades equipped with American-made Bradley and Stryker vehicles. Ukrainian crews are in Germany learning to operate donated Leopard 2 tanks, and in Britain training on donated Challenger tanks.