PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The two men seeking one of South Dakota’s seats in the U.S. Senate both want President Biden to allow Polish fighter jets to be sent to Ukraine.

U.S. Senator John Thune joined more than 40 other Republican senators in signing a letter to the president last week. Democrat challenger Brian Bengs of Aberdeen, who served 19 years as a U.S. Air Force lawyer, also supports sending Polish aircraft.

Bengs said the jets should be flown only by Ukrainian pilots in Ukrainian airspace, however. He acknowledged that his position doesn’t match Biden’s.

“The U.S. and many other NATO members have been and are now actively providing weapons to Ukraine expressly for use against the Russian military. In doing so, they have chosen sides and have arguably already joined the conflict. Instead, they assert no violation of neutrality occurs by providing weapons based upon the somewhat controversial idea of ‘qualified neutrality’ for situations of aggression. In any case, there is no legal difference between providing advanced weapons to use against Russian ground forces and aircraft to use against both air and ground forces,” Bengs said.

The Republican senators’ letter to President Biden stated, “While we commend the lethal aid that your Administration has sent to Ukraine thus far, we strongly disagree with your decision to delay and deny Poland the option to transfer fighter jets to Ukraine.” The letter added, “We implore you to direct your Department of Defense to facilitate the transfer of aircraft, air defense systems, and other capabilities by and through our NATO partners immediately.”

Thune, in a statement issued by his office Monday, said, “Allowing Poland to transfer its jets to the Ukrainian military would bolster the country’s air defense system, hopefully protect against greater civilian casualties, and keep the Ukrainian people in this fight for their lives. President Biden should work with our NATO allies and not stand in the way.”

Nearly all of the Republican senators from South Dakota’s neighboring states signed the letter: Iowa’s Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst; Nebraska’s Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse; Montana’s Steve Daines; North Dakota’s John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer; and Wyoming’s John Barasso.

South Dakota’s other U.S. senator, Mike Rounds, was one of the chamber’s few Republicans whose name wasn’t on the letter. Wyoming’s Cynthia Lummis didn’t have her name on it, either.

Bengs’ complete statement:

I support providing Polish fighter jets to Ukraine. I assess the increased risk of direct conflict with Russia as nominal depending upon how the jets are delivered.

I do want to provide a more detailed explanation of my thought process though.  Let me preface the response by clarifying that I am not privy to any intelligence information regarding Russian decision making. Having said that, I understand US opposition to the transfer of Polish fighter jets is based upon 1) the logistics problem of getting the jets to Ukraine and 2) the more serious risk of escalating the conflict with Russia.  Apparently other NATO members are also concerned that providing jets to Ukraine could be perceived by Russia as NATO getting directly involved.

The international law of neutrality applies to all non-participating states during any international armed conflict (IAC).  Given the simmering conflict since the Russian seizure of Crimea & instigation of a low-grade conflict in eastern Ukraine, it’s safe to say an IAC exists now. As such, an obligation of impartiality exists for neutral states in that they are not permitted to take sides by favoring one warring state over the other.  This obligation means providing weapons only to Ukraine is a violation.  Within the broad framework of international law, the UN Security Council can authorize an exception for conflicts resulting from aggression by one state against another. Unfortunately, Russia’s veto at the Security Council prevents such action.

The US & many other NATO members have been and are now actively providing weapons to Ukraine expressly for use against the Russian military.  In doing so, they have chosen sides and have arguably already joined the conflict.  Instead, they assert no violation of neutrality occurs by providing weapons based upon the somewhat controversial idea of “qualified neutrality” for situations of aggression. In any case, there is no legal difference between providing advanced weapons to use against Russian ground forces and aircraft to use against both air & ground forces.

NATO operates by consensus.  When considering collective action, if any member state breaks silence to oppose action there can be no collective action.  Individual states, however, may decide to act on their own or in accord with other willing allies.  The “ownership” of Polish jets is unclear as there was talk of transferring them to the US who would then deliver them to Ukraine. In the alternative, Poland could deliver them itself.  Either delivery scenario seems to contemplate a NATO pilot flying into Ukrainian airspace where the risk of engagement with Russian forces goes up dramatically.  The loss of NATO personnel/assets or action by NATO personnel causing the loss of Russian personnel/assets would seriously increase the escalation risk.  Thus, providing the jets should be done outside of Ukraine so Ukrainian pilots are the only ones flying them in Ukrainian airspace.

Aside from legal concerns, pragmatic realism demands that the US always be cautious when dealing with other nuclear weapon states such as Russia. We often defer to Russian aggression to avoid potential escalation which is the safest approach if based upon reciprocity. Unfortunately, reciprocal deference is not apparent in the recent history of US interactions with Russia.  In February 2018, U.S. intelligence concluded the Kremlin likely approved a coordinated Russian mercenary attack upon U.S. troops in Syria.  In July 2020, U.S. intelligence reported that the Russian government was paying bounties to Taliban militants who killed U.S. troops.  The Senate Intelligence Committee also joined U.S. intelligence in concluding that Russia actively interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump.  My position obviously differs with that of the Biden administration.  While I am glad to see Senate Republicans interested in pushing back against Russian aggression, I am left to wonder about their collective silence during the Trump administration.  Stable international relations must be based upon consistent maintenance of standards over time.