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Can and will Slovakia send fighter jets to Ukraine?

March 1, 2023

Slovakia's acting Prime Minister Eduard Heger would like to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, but at the moment, both the constitution and opposition seem to be standing in his way.

A Slovak MiG-29
Ukraine has officially asked Slovak caretaker PM Eduard Heger for the MiG-29 jetsImage: Yorick Jansens/BELGA/dpa/picture alliance

One year since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, one year of aid from European Union countries and others that have not lost hope in a Ukrainian victory: Over the past 12 months, tanks, defense systems, helicopters and tons of military equipment have been sent across NATO's eastern border to support Ukraine.

Now, NATO member Slovakia could become the first country to send fighter jets to Ukraine. "It should not matter if we're the first, because when it comes to doing the right thing, we are rarely the first," said caretaker Prime Minister Eduard Heger.

Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard Hege
'Our MiGs can save innocent lives in Ukraine,' according to Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard HegerImage: Olivier Matthys/picture alliance

Indeed, what Slovakia does next is of key importance because it could affect the way other countries help Ukraine. However, supplying the jets will not be easy as the Slovak constitution seems to block such a move by a caretaker government and the opposition is not yet convinced that supplying jets is a good idea.

Ukraine appeals for fighter jets

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Heger at a summit of the European Council on February 9 and asked him to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets. Zelenskyy's request for Slovakia's fighter jets was part of a wider appeal for help from European countries.

Heger expressed his willingness to deliver the Soviet-designed jets to Ukraine even though his government is currently only in a caretaker role after being ousted in a vote of no confidence last December

From left: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins and Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger
Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked European leaders to supply arms to his country at the European Council summit in FebruaryImage: Pool /Ukrainian Presidentia/picture alliance

Moreover, according to the Slovak constitution, a caretaker government cannot pass laws concerning essential international affairs. However, the constitution does not actually specify what these affairs are, and parliamentary parties cannot agree on them either.

Could sending jets drag Slovakia into the war?

While Heger has pledged to "invest a maximum effort into fulfilling Ukraine's request," opposition parties such as Smer-SD fear that such a move could drag Slovakia into the war. Although nominally a social democratic party, Smer-SD is known for its nationalist, right-wing and pro-Russian positions. It is now targeting voters who are worried about what sending the jets to Ukraine could mean for Slovakia.

The delivery of MiG-29 jets to Ukraine would not drag Slovakia into the war, thinks Juraj Krupa, chairman of the National Council Committee for Safety and Defense and member of the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS). "We have sent other technology to Ukraine, and nothing happened. People who scare others with opinions like this are simply pro-Russian trolls," he said in a media statement.

Growing support for parties opposed to the move

The number of Slovaks who believe the arguments put forward by Smer-SD party leader Robert Fico appear to be on the rise. The latest polls give Fico almost 18% of votes and indicate that Smer-SD is now the strongest party in Slovakia.

A Ukrainian Air Force Mig-29 fighter during a training session
Ukraine is keen to have the jets and says that it has the parts needed for their maintenance and repairImage: Roman Pilipey/dpa/picture alliance

Many political experts fear what might come if Smer-SD does win the general election that is due to take place in September and Fico becomes prime minister. In statements reminiscent of Viktor Orban, the prime minister of neighboring Hungary, Fico has vowed to halt weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

Would sending jets be unconstitutional?

Vincent Bujnak, an expert in constitutional law at the Comenius University in Bratislava, thinks that even if the parliament agreed to send fighter jets to Ukraine, such a move would be unconstitutional. "The parliament is not above our constitution," he told DW. "It has already backed a motion of no confidence. It cannot give back the authority that has been taken from the government."

Bujnak thinks that while the caretaker prime minister could ask the Constitutional Court to interpret the constitution in this respect, it is unlikely he will because the answer would probably be negative. What's more, a court ruling could take months or even years, and Ukraine needs help right now.

From left: Czech Defense Minister Jana Cernochova, Slovakian Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad, and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak during an outdoor press conference
Slovakia's neighbors and NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic pledged in 2022 to protect Slovak airspaceImage: Petr David Josek/AP/dpa/picture alliance

"The only real option we have here is to have a new government with full authority. Only the president can do this," he said. The other option would be to change the constitution, which would require the backing of 90 MPs. This is unlikely to happen as the government has not been able to get the backing of 76 MPs required to pass laws in recent months.

Does Slovakia not need its fighter jets?

Slovakia obtained the Russian fighter jets in the early 1990s for the purpose of protecting its airspace. It originally had 24 MiG-29s but reduced the number to 11 over time. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Slovak army grounded the jets because EU countries stopped importing the Russian components needed for the jets' maintenance and repair. Ukraine, on the other hand, says that it has the parts needed to fly the jets.

Two Leopard 2 tanks
In January, Germany approved the export of Leopard 2 battle tanks to UkraineImage: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

Slovakia is not currently using the MiGs to protect its airspace, as the country uses the Patriot and Mantis air defense systems. In addition, as part of NATO, it is also protected by Hungarian, Polish and Czech fighter jets. Slovakia has ordered new F-16 fighter jets from the US, but their delivery has been slowed down by a lack of chips and the pandemic.

Would Slovakia give or sell the jets to Ukraine?

Another aspect of the debate is whether Slovakia would sell the jets to Ukraine or give them away for free. When the jets were new, their estimated value was around €300 million ($318 million). However, given the age of the aircraft, this figure is likely to be significantly lower now.

Deputy Speaker of the National Council Peter Pcolinsky said that while he was not opposed to sending the jets to Ukraine, Slovakia must get something in return. What that something would be remains unclear. Options include Ukraine or the European Commission paying for the jets or NATO providing Slovakia with other army technology to replace the MiG-29s.

Slovakia was one of the first countries to help its eastern neighbor by sending the S-300 air force protection system to the front. It has also provided 8 howitzers Zuzana 2, 17 Mi-2 army helicopters and ammunition for the GRAD rocket launcher system.

Edited by Keno Verseck and Aingeal Flanagan

A red-haired woman (Sona Otajovicova) stands beside a large shrub and smiles into the camera
Sona Otajovicova Bratislava-based Slovakia correspondent