Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made a surprise visit to Britain, his second trip abroad since the onset of war with Russia, hoping to persuade the British government to supply his country with fighter jets.
After a brief visit to the United States in December, Zelensky’s jet landed in Stansted Airport, north of London, aboard a UK Royal Air Force C-17 transport plane on Wednesday, almost a year after Russia started waging war against his country.
The Ukrainian president received a red carpet welcome by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The pair then went to Downing Street to hold talks before Zelensky deliver a speech to the UK parliament in Westminster Hall.
Addressing British parliamentarians, Zelensky, on behalf of Ukraine’s “war heroes”, expressed gratitude to Britain for its support in the war against Russia, saying his country’s “heroes are in the trenches protecting Ukraine against missiles.”
“London has stood with Kiev since day one. Since the first seconds and minutes of the full-scale war. Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react,” The Ukrainian leader further said, adding that the UK “is marching with us to the most important victory of our lifetimes.”
“We will always come out on top of evil … we know freedom will win … we know Russia will lose. We know victory will change the world, and this will be a change the world needed,” Zelensky further told British lawmakers.
In a dramatic gesture, Zelensky presented the speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, with a helmet that he said belonged to a Ukrainian pilot. “We have freedom; give us wings to protect it,” read a message written on the helmet; a veiled reference to fighter jets.
During the brief meeting at Downing Street, Sunak stressed that the visit was a testament to Ukraine’s “courage, determination and fight and … to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries.”
Signaling that Britain was somehow warming up to the idea of supplying fighter jets to Ukraine, Sunak announced that British pilots would begin training Ukrainians to fly NATO combat aircraft.
“The first step in being able to provide advanced aircraft 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 later said at a news conference with Zelenskiy.
“Nothing is off the table and our leadership on this issue is something that we all collectively should be very proud of,” he said.
On Wednesday, Zelensky also met with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace before travelling to see Ukrainian troops being trained in Britain.
Zelensky is expected to address the European Parliament on Thursday before attending a summit of EU leaders.
Since former British prime minister Boris Johnson stepped down last year, Sunak has pledged to continue to support Ukraine, visiting Kiev in November to tell Zelensky: “We are with you all the way.”
According to the British defense ministry, Britain has trained 10,000 Ukrainian troops brought to battle readiness in the last six months and will train a further 20,000 troops this year.
Last week, Ukrainian troops landed in Britain to learn how to command British-made Challenger 2 tanks, as London will offer to provide Kiev with longer range capabilities, the ministry added in a statement.
However, despite Kiev’s repeated requests, London has so far refused to deliver fighter jets, saying it was not “the right approach” for now.
Last week, Sunak’s spokesman said that for a pilot to learn how to fly a British fighter jet requires at least 35 months of training.
Zelensky is desperately urging the West to pour more advanced weapons and military equipment into Ukraine, claiming that Russia is gearing up for a spring offensive.
UK imposes new sanctions on Russia
Meanwhile, London rolled out a fresh round of sanctions on “Russian military and Kremlin elites”, including six entities allegedly providing military equipment such as drones for Russia’s war on Ukraine.
In a statement on Wednesday, the British government said the new punitive measures targeted eight individuals and one entity connected to financial networks that help “maintain wealth and power amongst Kremlin elites.”
“Ukraine has shown [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that it will not break under his tyrannical invasion. He has responded by indiscriminately striking civilian areas and critical national infrastructure across the country,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in the statement, stressing, “We cannot let him succeed. We must increase our support.”
Since the onset of war, the UK has sanctioned more than 1,300 Russian individuals and entities.
Russia launched what it calls “a special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, over the perceived threat of the ex-Soviet republic joining NATO. Since then, the United States and Ukraine’s other allies have sent Kiev tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including rocket systems, drones, armored vehicles, tanks, and communication systems.
Western countries have also imposed a slew of economic sanctions on Moscow. The Kremlin has said the sanctions and the Western military assistance will only prolong the war.