Zelenskiy asks for "Wings for freedom" fighter jets during surprise visit to London

Zelenskiy asks for
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy passionately thanked the UK for standing with Ukraine “since day one” of the invasion. / bne IntelliNews
By Dominic Culverwell in London February 8, 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy paid a surprise visit to London on February 8 in the first stop on a European tour.

Dressed in his distinct military khakis and jumper under the gothic arches of Westminster Hall, the Ukrainian leader addressed lawmakers across the political spectrum on his second foreign visit since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. He passionately thanked the UK for standing with Ukraine “since day one” of the invasion.

Following Kyiv’s success in securing Western tanks, Zelenskiy has set his sights on getting fighter jets and he appealed to the UK for planes. In front of MPs, he gave the speaker of the House of Commons a real Ukrainian pilot's helmet on which was written “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it”.

"I appeal to you and the world, with simple and yet the most important words – combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom," he said, Reuters reported.

Zelenskiy stressed that without fighter jets and longer-range missiles, the war will stagnate. He thanked the UK in advance for “powerful English planes” and said that the UK is marching with Kyiv to the “most important victory of our lifetime”, which he called “a victory over the very idea of the war”.

He referenced the fact King Charles had trained as a fighter pilot, saying that, “In Britain, the king is an air force pilot. In Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.” Following his speech to British MPs,  King Charles met with Zelenskiy at Buckingham Palace. 

For now, Ukraine’s allies are hesitant to provide fighter jets, although Kyiv is particularly keen to get hold of US-made F-16 jets. The UK has not yet confirmed it will send planes but a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the country is looking into it and will begin training Ukrainian pilots to fly Nato standard fighter jets in the spring.

"The prime minister has tasked the defence secretary with investigating what jets we might be able to give, but to be clear this is a long-term solution, rather than a short-term capability, which is what Ukraine needs most now," the spokesperson said, Reuters reported.

Sunak greeted Zelenskiy at the airport before the Ukrainian leader’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the evening. Although Zelenski stated he could not share too many details on what was discussed, he said that the UK will provide Kyiv with a “very strong” defence package, with Sunak claiming that “nothing is off the table” in terms of military support, as Russia prepares for a brutal offensive.

The UK is also expanding its training programme, which has already trained over 10,000 Ukrainian troops in the last six months, and will speed up the delivery of equipment to “ensure that it reaches [Ukraine’s] frontline in the coming days and weeks, not months or years,” according to Sunak. Moreover, the prime minister announced that Challenger 2 main battle tanks, which London pledged 14 of last month, will be operating in Ukraine next month, The Guardian reported.

The tour comes after the EU held a historic summit in Kyiv last week, in which the bloc announced €545mn in military support. Zelenskiy will visit Brussels on February 9, where he is likely to continue his campaign for fighter jets. So far Kyiv has not secured any, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz warning against sending more and more advanced weapons to Ukraine out of fear it will escalate the war.

“The question of fighter planes does not even arise. I can only advise against getting into a constant bidding war when it comes to weapon systems,” he told the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Euronews reported.

US President Joe Biden also denied Kyiv's request. However, French President Emmanuel Macron has not ruled out sending jets, but he explained that requirements need to be set in place. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that F-16s would be “a massive step forward”, but would not be “a taboo”.

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