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29th Feb 2024

Rzeszów: a Polish town wary of drawing Russian fire

  • Rzeszów market square on Tuesday morning (Photo: Andrew Rettman)
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Rzeszów, a small city in southeast Poland known for its volleyball team, normally attracts Polish tourists heading to ski in the nearby mountains or investors with interests in local firms.

Since war broke out across the Ukraine border, just 65km away, it has also been hosting refugees — several hundred of whom arrived by coaches at the train station on Monday (7 March).

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  • Information sign for refugees at Rzeszów train station (Photo: Andrew Rettman)

But Rzeszów may soon also be welcoming visitors of another kind: Ukrainian fighter pilots.

Along with its chocolate-box market square, Rzeszów is home to one of the country's airports — boasting a military-grade runway — that's closest to Ukraine, and that has made the town the subject of intense speculation about its possible role in the unfolding conflict with Russia.

It has already become a logistics hub for Western assistance to Ukraine, with military cargo planes taking off and landing daily and with unmarked military trucks going back and forth toward Przemyśl, on the Ukraine border.

But the future scenario that could play out at Rzeszów would see the US give American-made F-16 jets to Poland, while Poland hands its legacy Russian-made MiG jets to Ukrainian pilots. Ukrainian pilots then would pick up the MiGs at airfields, like those at Rzeszów — and fly them into combat over the border, back inside Ukraine.

Such a swap would accomplish two goals. It would keep the US out of a direct conflict over Ukrainian territory; and second, it would provide Ukrainian pilots with planes they already know how to fly.

Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, even paid a visit to Rzeszów last Saturday, where he said Poland and the US were discussing the jets project.

And although Blinken has been guarded in his comments about swapping F-16s with Poland — warning time and again against doing anything that would draw the Western allies into a hot war with Russia — US aides have been more forthcoming.

"We are working with the Poles on this issue and consulting with the rest of our Nato allies on this [delivering fighter jets to Ukraine]" a US spokesperson, who asked not to be identified by name, said by email Monday.

"There are a number of challenging practical questions," however, "including how the planes could actually be transferred from Poland to Ukraine," the spokesperson said.

Those practical questions were highlighted late Tuesday, when Poland made a surprise offer to transfer the MiG fighter jets to the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany — an offer that was quickly rejected by the Americans.

John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Polish proposal was not "a tenable one," Reuters reported.

The Polish offer, which was not apparently cleared with Washington, and the sharp response by the US, underlined the jumpiness over any plan that would see Nato drawn closer into the conflict with Ukraine, which is not part of the defensive alliance.

Even so, there has been a steady drumbeat of support for Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky's pleas for Russian-made fighter jets for its pilots, implying that some form of jet swap could eventually take place.

"We would protect Poland, we'll help them with anything that they need," the British defence secretary Ben Wallace also told Sky News on the fighter jets scheme on Tuesday.

But going ahead "may bring them [the Poles] into direct line of fire from countries such as Russia or Belarus," Wallace added.

And though Poland is a staunch Nato ally and steadfastly behind the Ukrainian struggle to fend off Russian president Vladimir Putin's army, the public talk of swapping jets on its territory is running into problems domestically.

The official Polish government Twitter account has denounced the jet-swap idea as "fake news."

No decision had been made on the "delicate" project and "several [Nato] countries had "voiced reservations" about it, Polish government spokesman, Piotr Muller, said on national TV in recent days.

Privately, Polish diplomats are even more explicit about their fears.

"Throwaway" public remarks by Nato allies risked "provoking a Russian attack" on Polish targets, said one Polish diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There was "huge frustration" in Poland about perceived loose talk of using areas of Poland, like Rzeszów, as military logistics hubs, said the diplomat, who also was critical of comments made by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.

Whether Nato allies are able to fashion a way to alleviate Polish concerns remains an open question even as the fighting intensifies, and civilian casualties rise, in Ukraine.

One "big question is how would Nato retaliate" if Russian jets chased Ukrainian pilots back into Polish or other Nato airspace or even bombed the Rzeszów airfield, said Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official.

And as for the residents of Rzeszów, there is a sense of apprehension — but tinged with a sense of historical inevitability about its potential involvement in Ukraine's agony.

"This border here has seen so many wars over the centuries that Polish people have, somewhere deep inside, a fear of Russia," said Michał, a 44-year old actor from Rzeszów. "These feelings have bubbled up again," he said.

"Well, I am a bit scared," said Ania, 47, a small business owner in Rzeszów.

"After all, there's such a big military concentration at the airport here, it's an obvious target if the Russians wanted to start something. But Nato wouldn't let that happen, would it? I mean, all those American soldiers in Poland - they're not just for show, are they?" she said.

This story has been updated to reflect the Polish offer to send fighter jets to a US air base in Germany late on Tuesday, and the US response.

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