London: President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Britain and others on Wednesday to give Ukraine “wings for freedom” by sending combat aircraft to help turn the tide against Russia’s offensive, hoping to overcome Western reluctance to take that step.
Western countries have scaled up their pledges of military aid for Ukraine this year with promises of hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles as well as longer range weapons, but have so far refused to deliver war planes.
Zelensky praised Britain and the West for the support and the sanctions they had provided so far in an address to lawmakers from across the political spectrum in the Gothic expanse of parliament’s Westminster Hall in London.
But, offering an airforce helmet with the message “we have freedom, give us wings to protect it” to the speaker of the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament, Zelensky called on the West to deliver up the fighter jets.
“I appeal to you and the world, with simple and yet the most important words -- combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom.” Earlier, Britain announced an immediate surge of military deliveries to Ukraine to help it fend off an intensifying Russian offensive and pledged to train its pilots to be able to fly “sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future”.
The government said that was “part of long-term investment in their military” - wording that suggested Britain had not yet shifted its view that providing Kyiv with the fighter jets it has asked for is not the right approach for now.
London was Zelensky’s first stop on only his second trip abroad since Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, after a visit to Washington in December. He was expected to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris later on Wednesday and to ask a European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday for more arms and steps to join the bloc.
Greeted by Sunak on the steps of his Number 10 Downing Street office to applause from onlookers, Zelensky had a short meeting before the British leader took questions in parliament.
Sunak said the visit was a testament to Ukraine’s “courage, determination and fight and ... to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries”.
“I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future.” Zelensky will later meet King Charles, who has visited several organisations who help Ukrainians in Britain and has called Russia’s attack of Ukraine a “brutal aggression”.
Russia is bringing tens of thousands of recently mobilised troops to the battlefield to try to break through Ukrainian defences in eastern Ukraine in what it calls a special military operation launched to stop Ukraine’s shift towards the West.
Ukraine’s allies have promised hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles to help Kyiv resist the assault and recapture territory, but have said it will take time to train Ukrainian forces to use them effectively.
Britain has trained 10,000 Ukrainian troops brought to battle readiness in the last six months and will train a further 20,000 soldiers this year, the government said.
Last week, Ukrainian troops arrived in Britain to learn how to command Challenger 2 tanks and Sunak will offer to provide Ukraine with longer range capabilities, a statement from his office said.
London has said delivering fighter jets is not “the right approach” for now. But defence minister Ben Wallace has suggested that stance could change.
The move to train pilots was likely to involve simulators rather than advanced Western aircraft and did not mean Britain would soon supply such jets, Justin Bronk, an expert at the RUSI think tank said on Twitter. But it would help pilots now and prepare them for possible future such deliveries, he wrote.