Ukraine has recently received short-range air-defence missile systems and several fighter jets from Slovakia, in return for which the NATO member was offered valuable military equipment by the US. But many Slovaks are not impressed.
A week after Slovakia sent four fighter planes to Ukraine, interim Prime Minister Eduard Heger arrived in Ukraine on Friday at the invitation of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
It is Heger’s second trip to Ukraine. He visited the country last April, just days after the world learned about the mass killings, sexual violence and other crimes committed against civilians in the town of Bucha by the invading Russian forces.
Interim Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď is accompanying Heger on the current trip.
Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and Moldavan President Maia Sandu are also visiting Ukraine to mark the first anniversary of the Bucha massacre.
The defence minister confirmed on Friday that missiles and two Kub short-range air defence systems, which Slovakia promised to provide to Ukraine, have now been delivered. “In addition to four MiG-29 jets, the other MiGs are gradually arriving in Ukraine,” the defence minister said on a train bound for Kyiv. He admitted that Slovakia’s capacity to provide further major weapons systems is becoming limited, but he hinted that Slovakia would play a key role in supplying Ukraine with ammunition.
“We are taking measures to be able to quintuple the production of 155mm ammunition in our factories,” he told the press, stressing that Slovakia also plays an important logistical role in transporting aid to Ukraine from the West.
At a meeting with Heger, the Ukrainian president asked Slovakia to help rebuild Ukraine. They also discussed Russian propaganda in Slovakia and touched on the isue of wheat exports from Ukraine. Heger would like to see it exported to Africa rather than Europe, to protect local farmers.
“It is important for us that Ukraine is a stable country as soon as possible,” he told journalists before his meeting with Zelensky. “It will help cross-border cooperation and trade in eastern Slovakia.”
The Slovak government officials’ visit to Ukraine comes two days after Ukrainian Deputy Speaker Olena Kondratiuk paid a visit to Slovak parliament.
Ukrainian deputy speaker meets Slovak MPs
In Bratislava, Kondratiuk thanked Slovakia for its continuous humanitarian, political and military support, including the recognition of Russia as a terrorist state.
“My special thanks go to the National Council [Slovak parliament] for the resolution on the return of forcibly deported Ukrainian children,” Kondratiuk said, referring to the resolution which was adopted on March 28.
In her speech to Slovak MPs on Wednesday, she also shared several stories about how the war had affected the lives of Ukrainians. When she spoke of midwife Maria from Kharkiv, the deputy speaker also mentioned MiG-29 fighter planes.
She said: “Four jets from Slovakia already protect the sky over Kharkiv.”
Slovakia signed an intergovernmental agreement on the provision of military equipment, effectively jets, with Ukraine on March 17, despite threats from Russia.
The decision came a year after the Heger-led government first mentioned the possibility of sending the jets to Ukraine if preceded by an official request from Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked interim Prime Minister Heger for MiG-29 jets in early February during a meeting in Brussels.
Ukraine will receive 13 MiG-29 jets in total, in addition to two Kub systems, spare parts and missiles from Slovakia. Naď said in a recent radio interview that the transfer of the remaining equipment, unlike the first four jets flown by Ukrainian pilots, would be gradual and on the ground.
It is believed that Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová could announce the successful completion of the transfer of jets during her April visit to Kyiv.
Even so, a majority of Slovaks disapprove of the transfer. In an Ipsos survey for the Denník N daily conducted a week before the agreement was signed, 60 per cent said they were against the provision of jets to Ukraine. The high number is attributed to a narrative, denied by the relatively unpopular prime minister, being pushed by the extremist and pro-Russian part of the Slovak opposition that the government is dragging Slovakia into war by supplying Ukraine with more military equipment. This narrative appears to be finding traction in a society that is heavily exposed and vulnerable to Russian propaganda.
“Just as our S-300 [long-range missile] system that we provided [to Ukraine last April] has saved thousands of lives, so too will these fighter jets save thousands of lives,” Heger said after his government approved the transfer during its online sitting on March 17.
The S-300 continues to be operational, Naď has recently confirmed.
A year ago, when Slovakia transferred its only S-300 to Ukraine secretly and the opposition criticised the move, some of Slovakia’s allies, including the US, offered to protect the country’s airspace with their air defence systems. This time, however, the US tabled a more lucrative offer to Slovakia – the cheap sale of a dozen attack helicopters.
Constitutionality versus morality
Prior to the offer and as soon as Ukraine asked Slovakia for fighter planes, a debate on whether the transfer of Slovak jets was a fundamental foreign policy matter and whether the now interim government – in December, Heger’s government lost a no-confidence motion and new elections are scheduled for September – would need parliament’s approval for the transfer. Politicians and experts could not agree on those questions for more than a month.
In addition to rows about the interim government’s competences, they also squabbled over the state of the grounded jets. Some saw them as little more than scrap metal, while others considered them still deployable military materiel.
“The MiGs will serve the Ukrainians much better,” said Defence and Security Parliamentary Committee Chair Juraj Krúpa for the opposition Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party. “Here they are just a bunch of scrap. They have been grounded [since last summer].”
The government gradually abandoned its initial promise to discuss the transfer and seek approval for it in the debating chamber. The only discussions on the matter took place in the foreign affairs and security and defence parliamentary committees. As the weeks went by, Heger’s cabinet began to insist more often than not that it possessed the right to decide on the transfer on its own.
“The government has the [constitutional] competence to send such decommissioned equipment, so the government will decide and send these jets to Ukraine,” said Heger just days before the signing of the contract.
The opposition parties, except SaS, questioned the legitimacy of Heger’s interim government with limited powers and the decision it eventually made.
On March 27, the former ruling Smer-SD party, led by former three-time prime minister Robert Fico, filed a criminal report against members of the interim government on suspicion of committing the crimes of abuse of authority of a public official, violation of duties in the management of foreign property, and sabotage.
Smer, a party with a strong pro-Russian bent which enjoys the largest support among voters in the latest pre-election polls, has opposed any military support to Ukraine. The party claims that weapons will never lead to peace. “The transfer is an evident and shameless violation of the constitution,” Fico maintained in a Facebook video.
In fact, some constitutional law experts, even though they claim to support military aid to Ukraine on moral grounds, doubt that the government approved the contract with Ukraine in line with the constitution. For example, in their February legal analysis prepared for the Representation of the European Commission in Slovakia, experts from Comenius University in Bratislava point out the vagueness of the constitution regarding the interpretation of competencies of an interim cabinet.
“Taking into account the principle of republican parliamentarism, which can be deduced from the constitution, it is necessary to state that in case of doubts as to whether an interim government has a certain competence or not, one should rather lean towards the conclusion that it does not have the competence in question,” a group of experts wrote in its analysis.
But the government came up with a plan and justified its decision on the basis of its own legal analysis, which needless to say has not been published. Yet the administration argued it had the constitutional competence to conclude an intergovernmental agreement even after it lost the vote of confidence in parliament last December.
“The president did not have a problem with it either,” Naď claimed.
Indeed, she didn’t. However, as President Čaputová said, she would have preferred approval from the parliament in the matter of MiG-29 jets given the unstable political situation in Slovakia. She also criticised Heger’s cabinet for its chaotic communication about the fighter planes, in particular the untimely announcement on the transfer and the subsequent weeks-long search for a constitutional solution.
She was joined by well-known constitutional law expert Radoslav Procházka, who even though a supporter of Ukraine wrote on his blog that the signed agreement should have been sent to parliament for approval because the intergovernmental agreement in question was of a military character.
In Slovakia, there is no legal definition of what an intergovernmental agreement of military character encompasses. Some think 13 fighter jets, missiles and two short-range air defence systems for Ukraine fall under the definition of such an agreement. However, the administration claims the opposite following the decision of a member of Heger’s cabinet and Foreign Minister Rastislav Káčer.
Former prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda believes it was right to send fighter planes to Ukraine. “Genocide is being committed in Ukraine,” he said. “Let constitutional law experts argue and explain but, morally and politically, the government made the right decision.”
The row over the constitutionality of the government’s decision to send the fighter jets could have been prevented had there been a cabinet with full powers or a constitutional change adopted. Or if somebody had turned to the Constitutional Court in this matter, but no one did.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov was feeling grateful, and somewhat poetic, several hours after it was announced that Slovakia’s four Soviet-designed fighter jets unexpectedly took off from the Sliač military base in central Slovakia to Ukraine. “In spring, birds traditionally arrive in Ukraine,” he tweeted on March 23, “MiG-29 jets from Slovakia will have a lot of work defending Europe.”
The Slovak Armed Forces also wished the four jets a lot of luck and saved lives: “From today, help the Ukrainian nation.”
But on Facebook, the Russian embassy in Bratislava shared a different perspective on the issue. The donation of Soviet-made military equipment to Kyiv is illegal, it claimed on March 17. “The relevant Russian-Slovak agreements clearly exclude the transfer of weapons and military equipment to third countries without the permission of the manufacturer’s country,” the embassy said.
However, Slovakia’s interim defence minister believes no such agreements exist. “I haven’t seen them. We did not find them at the ministry,” Naď said in a recent radio interview. As for Russia’s threats, Naď attributed them to “frustration at the failure of the Putin administration’s decisions, the below-average military command, and the frailty of Russian technology.”
The Russian embassy warned Slovakia that increasingly active involvement in the military support of the Kyiv regime could result in an unpredictable and dangerous escalation of the conflict, for which the initiators of the decisions will bear full responsibility. In response, Heger called on the embassy to stop threatening Slovakia.
In the two weeks since the jets left for Ukraine, a Russian group of hackers have attacked several websites in Slovakia, including the national bank, the parliament and the Justice Ministry. In its message on Telegram, the group warned Slovakia against supporting Ukraine.
In 2022, Slovakia spent €170 million to support Ukraine militarily.
Though it may seem that Slovakia has nothing else to send to Ukraine, the country still owns 30 old T-72 tanks. The defence minister, nevertheless, says there is only a 30 per cent chance that Slovakia would provide Ukraine with these tanks. In a recent interview, Naď maintained that the tanks would leave Slovakia only if the country received, say, 30 newer tanks within a year.
Offer to buy US attack helicopters
Currently, Slovak airspace is being guarded by fighter planes from neighbouring countries and air defence systems from NATO allies. American F-16 jets, which Slovakia agreed to purchase in 2018, should start arriving in the country next year.
As compensation for the transferred MiG-29 jets and delayed US fighter planes, Slovakia has been offered the chance to buy 12 attack AH-1Z Viper helicopters together with other necessary equipment for the machines, training of pilots and technicians, as well as more than 500 sophisticated AGM-114 Hellfire II missiles from the US at a discounted price of €313.5 million.
Moreover, for the transferred jets, Slovakia will receive €200 million from the European Peace Facility. The country could use this to help cover the cost of the Bell helicopters. “This offer is fantastic and will fundamentally increase our defence potential,” the defence minister said of the US offer, which without the discount would stand at more than €920 million.
Slovakia no longer possesses any attack helicopters. It owns three Russian Mi-17 helicopters, which it can service without Russian help unlike the grounded MiG jets, and nine American UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. But some experts point out that the maintenance of attack helicopters is expensive and Slovakia might not be able to afford it. Naď dismissed the claim, though in 2011 Slovakia grounded its Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters for the same reason.
In addition, Slovakia had not planned to buy any attack helicopters before the US offer landed on the table. Instead, it had different priorities such as the purchase of attack drones or a long-range air defence system to replace the S-300 sent to Ukraine.
“We all know that those helicopters are nonsense, that we don’t need them, that the Americans forced them on us,” Fico recently claimed. Despite his anti-Washington views, it was his governments that bought US helicopters and jets in the past. Fico’s former party colleague and current rival, Peter Pellegrini of the Hlas party, claims the offer would be “definitely a good purchase”.
Slovakia should make a decision by the start of the summer.
The Denník N daily claims that the US helicopters on offer were intended for Pakistan. The contract reportedly fell through and Washington offered them to its allies afterwards.
“We were the first to receive this offer,” Naď said. “If we don’t take the Vipers, another country will get them.”
This story was produced in partnership with Reporting Democracy, a cross-border journalism platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.