Ukrainians are still trying to buy fighter jets, but a Ukrainian pilot says the changing air war requires different weapons

·7 min read
US and Ukraine fighter jets
Ukrainian and US fighter jets during a military exercise in Ukraine on July 22, 2011.US Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Charles Vaughn
  • Since Russia attacked Ukraine in February, Ukrainians have asked Western countries for fighter jets.

  • The "Buy Me a Fighter Jet" campaign is raising private donations to buy jets for Ukrainian forces.

  • The campaign is ongoing, but a Ukrainian pilot says missiles would now be more useful against Russia.

Since Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, Ukrainians — from the general public to top officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — have urged the US and its allies to provide fighter jets so Ukraine's air force can fight off Russia's larger, better-equipped military.

The US has provided spare parts that have allowed Ukraine to put more jets into service, but so far no one has delivered jets to Kyiv. Now a group of Ukrainian volunteers is taking that search into their own hands, creating a crowdfunding campaign called "Buy Me a Fighter Jet" to raise money for the jets.

It's not the first crowdfunding effort to support Ukraine's military. Initiatives by private individuals and governments have procured smaller items for military use, like drones and satellite phones, but "Buy Me a Fighter Jet" is an effort to purchase the big-ticket military hardware that Ukraine's Western partners have been reluctant to provide.

The hashtag appeared online in April alongside a rousing video that called on celebrities and philanthropists to buy fighter jets for Ukrainian forces. An early iteration of the campaign's website featured a menu-like list of countries and the military aircraft they operate.

While "Buy Me a Fighter Jet" has targeted wealthy benefactors, it seeks to be cost-effective, Taras Maselko, the campaign's spokesperson, told Insider.

"For $7 or $8 million — we already saw some proposals — you can buy two or three of the [Sukhoi] or MiG jets," he said. "They can sell them cheaper."

Ukraine Air Force MiG-29
A Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 at an airbase in Ukraine on November 23, 2016.Danil Shamkin/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly the MiG-29, a "quite old" Soviet-era model, Maselko said. In March, Poland offered to turn its MiG-29s over to the US so the US could deliver them to Ukraine, but the US declined that proposal.

Despite the interest, "Buy Me a Fighter Jet" is far from its financial goals. As of May 12, only $221,600 had been raised, much of it from Ukrainians, according to Maselko, and not billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, whom the campaign has targeted on Twitter.

Some wealthy individuals with Ukrainian ties have expressed interest, however. In mid-May, the Ukrainian singer Kamaliya Zahoor, known as Kamaliya, said her husband, the British-Pakistani multimillionaire Mohammad Zahoor, and other philanthropists had collected the money to purchase two aircraft, according to the Kyiv Post, an English-language outlet that Zahoor owned from 2009 to 2018.

Kamaliya was more circumspect in a later interview, and Mohammad Zahoor did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Insider on his role in a potential purchase.

Maselko said in a WhatsApp message that while the campaign has been in discussions with the Zahoors, "they were not buying jets" but "just pushing Pakistan['s] government to provide fighter jets to Ukraine."

"I asked if they can help, but no. They are helping Ukrainian refugees in Europe, so [they are] involved in that," Maselko said, attributing reports of the Zahoors actually buying fighter jets to mistranslations by "some media."

Yuriy Ignat, a spokesperson for the General Staff of the Ukrainian Air Force, told Insider via WhatsApp that the service "knows nothing about this," followed by a laughing emoji. "It is impossible to buy a fighter in the store," Ignat added.

'Not just crazy stuff'

A MiG-29 fighter jet
A Ukrainian MiG-29 at the Vasilkov air base outside of Kyiv on November 23, 2016.AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

"Buy Me a Fighter Jet" is now promising that all funds raised will go to the Ukrainian military for it to purchase fighter jets and other equipment. Maselko said the campaign, working through the Galician Aviation Charitable Foundation, in late April signed an agreement with state defense firm Ukroboronprom to handle any purchases.

The agreement provides the bureaucracy that typically handles such transactions, giving the campaign legitimacy and backing up its charitable intentions, Maselko said. "Now we have the argument to show that it's not just crazy stuff. It's not a campaign of just publicity."

Maselko also said that Ukroboronprom would handle the equipping and maintenance of the fighter jets. "We are not the experts in the jet equipment," Maselko told Insider.

"The crucial thing," Maselko added, is "you have to sign all the documents to pass it to the Ukrainian Air Forces, and that's what we are bringing here with this memorandum, that we have an agreement with the company which has the license to do that. So now, the only thing we need is just to get this money, to raise this money to buy the fighter jets."

Ukroboronprom and its chief executive, Yuriy Husyev, did not respond when asked to confirm the deal.

Even if the campaign raises enough money, it's not clear where the jets would come from.

Private citizens in the US own some MiG-29s, which could be flyable and outfitted for combat. The US government also has a small, clandestine fleet of MiG-29s and Su-27s that it uses for testing and training US aircraft, but transferring those to Ukraine could raise unwanted questions about what the US has been doing with them. Those jets would also be quite difficult for the US to replace.

Missile fragment after attack on Kramatorsk train station, Ukraine
A fragment of a Tochka-U missile on the ground after an attack at the railway station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, on April 8, 2022.Andriy Andriyenko/AP

Wherever the jets come from, keeping them flying would also be a challenge. Spare parts and the expertise needed to operate the Soviet-era aircraft are dwindling. The few NATO militaries that use them are phasing them out in favor of US- and European-designed aircraft.

Even though the US and other countries have completed arms transfers to Ukraine with alacrity in recent months, there are still plenty of bureaucratic hurdles involved in weapons transfers. Reducing the red tape will be critical to getting more weapons to Ukraine faster, said a Ukrainian pilot who asked Insider not to use his name for security reasons.

While "Buy Me a Fighter Jet" and others have focused on aircraft, those don't top the pilot's list of urgent needs.

Jets will be necessary "in order to get our territories back and have that other line of air defense," the pilot said, but buying and transferring them and then training crews and building infrastructure for them — especially newer aircraft like F-16s — would take months.

"Now, looking back, we learned how to protect ourselves — our jets, our assets, at the airfields — and week after week, [Russian] airstrikes were less and less precise," the pilot said.

Russia has backed off of its attacks on Ukrainian aircraft and air assets since the start of the war, the pilot said. "What we're seeing now, they've learned that they can't destroy our assets using those cruise-missile strikes, so they are simply hitting civilian objects."

"I think, at this moment, for Ukraine the number-one priority to get from the Western countries, from NATO, would be surface-to-air missiles," he said, because Russian aircraft "are not really flying deeply into our airspace but they're still using those cruise missiles to hit targets all over Ukraine."

Surface-to-air missiles have "been proven to be more effective against" those cruise missiles, the pilot said.

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