Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged the United Kingdom and other Western allies to send combat aircraft to ensure his country’s victory in the war with Russia as he began a tour of Europe.
On just his second trip abroad since the war began a year ago, Zelenskyy met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and King Charles on Wednesday.
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He was later due in Paris for dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
In an address to the UK Parliament in London, the Ukrainian leader praised the UK for its support and reiterated his plea for combat aircraft, which he referred to as “wings for freedom”.
Western countries have so far stopped short of providing planes or weapons that can attack deep inside Russia
Offering an air force helmet, the president told the speaker of the House of Commons, “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.”
At a joint news conference with Zelenskyy later in the day, Sunak said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to supplying Ukraine with jets to fight Russia.
“The first step in being able to provide advanced aircrafts is to have soldiers or aviators that are capable of using them. That is a process that takes some time. We’ve started that process today,” Sunak said.
Russia’s embassy to the UK warned London against sending fighter jets to Ukraine, saying such a move would have ramifications for the entire world, Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency reported.
The UK announced plans to expand a programme training Ukraine’s military to ensure its pilots could fly sophisticated jets of NATO military alliance’s standard.
The announcement gave no timeframe and stopped short of a commitment to provide Kyiv with British jets. But it signalled a shift that could pave the way for other nations to send planes.
Zelenskyy also met King Charles at Buckingham Palace.
“We’ve all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long, I can’t tell you,” the king said.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said Zelenskyy’s visit is “perhaps a recognition, an acknowledgement of Britain’s steadfast support for Ukraine”.
“[This is] doubtless an opportunity for President Zelenskyy, not just a wartime leader but an absolutely relentless campaigner for international support for Ukraine,” Hull said.
Zelenskyy’s tour of Europe, which will also include a European Union summit in Brussels, follows a surprise trip to the United States in December. The choreography of meeting the British, French and German leaders the same day was a sign of his assiduous care in cultivating Western opinion.
Germany’s Scholz said he expected strong support for Ukraine from this week’s EU summit and a new round of European sanctions on Russia around the anniversary of the invasion.
Scholz, publicly more cautious than some other Western leaders on arms deliveries, said decisions on weapons were best coordinated behind the scenes rather than announced by countries in a “public competition to outdo each other”.
His defence minister said Western allies could deliver a first battalion of about 31 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine in the early months of this year.
Western countries have scaled up pledges of aid, including the offer last month of tanks. Kyiv still wants longer-range missiles, as well as warplanes.
After major Ukrainian gains in the second half of 2022, Russia has recovered momentum, sending tens of thousands of freshly mobilised troops to the front.
Russian forces have made incremental progress in relentless winter battles which both sides describe as some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
Kyiv has said it expects Moscow to broaden that offensive with a big push as the February 24 anniversary of the invasion approaches.
Russian forces in Ukraine are focusing on “waging a counteroffensive” to take complete control of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said.