Ukraine ‘sky shield getting stronger’ as allies supply coveted F-16s

President Zelenskyy’s announcement that European allies will provide high-end fighter jets comes during a visit to their capitals.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has welcomed a “historic” decision by the Netherlands and Denmark to provide US-made F-16 fighter jets for his country to counter Russia’s invasion.

Zelenskyy sought the advanced warplanes for months to strengthen Ukraine’s Soviet-era air force as it pursues a grinding counteroffensive against Russian forces in the east.

Washington announced its approval of the F-16 transfers on Friday, and training of Ukraine pilots is set to begin this month, which may allow Ukraine to begin deploying the jets in early 2024.

The decision is “absolutely historic, powerful and inspiring for us”, Zelenskyy said alongside Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte during a visit to the Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands on Sunday.

The Dutch air force has 42 F-16s and Rutte said the number provided to Kyiv would be finalised after talks with allies.

Later on Sunday, Zelenskyy travelled to Denmark’s Skrydstrup airbase and was greeted by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

“We also know that you need more and that is why today we announced that we will donate 19 F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine,” the Danish leader said.

Six of the jets will be delivered by the end of this year, eight next year, and five in 2025, Frederiksen said.

“This is a very powerful support for us – training missions are already starting,” Zelenskyy told journalists.

“We are doing our best to get even more results for Ukraine. In particular, today we discussed the expansion of training missions. Ukraine’s sky shield is getting stronger.”

Alexandre Vautravers, an analyst and the editor-in-chief of the Swiss Military Review, said the F-16 development “is not a game changer but allows Ukraine to stay in the game”.

“Until now, we can say that Ukraine received quite a number of combat aircraft, mostly MiG-29s, so it has been able to maintain the number of aircraft it started the war with,” Vautravers told Al Jazeera.

“But the Western countries have no more ex-Soviet airplanes to commit to this fight and, therefore, it will need to be Western airplanes from now on.”

Zelenskyy’s visit comes after a trip to Sweden on Saturday, when he discussed joint production of CV90 combat vehicles and training of Ukraine pilots for Gripen fighter jets with Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

‘Nuclear’ threat

The long-sought approval to supply the jets drew a warning from Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would consider the F-16s a “nuclear” threat because of their capacity to carry atomic weapons.

The Netherlands and Denmark have led a months-long push to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s and to ultimately deliver the jets to help counter the air superiority of Russia, whose forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Saturday said training had begun for Ukrainian pilots, but it would take at least six months and possibly longer to also train engineers and mechanics.

Frederiksen said more than 70 Ukrainian military officials arrived in Denmark for training. Ukraine says it expects several dozen pilots to be trained.

Both the Netherlands and Denmark have F-16s available to donate as their armed forces are transitioning to newer F-35 fighters made by a group of countries led by Washington.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies