UK may send fighter jets to Ukraine over ‘long-term’ after Zelenskyy plea – POLITICO

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LONDON — Rishi Sunak has asked his defense chief to look at whether the U.K. can provide fighter jets to Ukraine over the “long-term.”

Speaking during a surprise U.K. visit from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Wednesday, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is now “actively looking at whether we send jets” to Ukraine.

He told reporters: “The PM has tasked the defense secretary with investigating what jets we might be able to give — but to be clear this is a long-term solution.”

The comments came just hours after a rare address by Zelenskyy to both houses of the British parliament, during which the Ukrainian leader made a fresh plea for his country to be provided with fighter jets as it seeks to repel Russia’s invasion.

Zelenskyy’s next stop will be France, according to an official in Paris.

Downing Street has previously argued it is not “practical” to provide Ukraine with highly complex jets which will take extensive training to use, although it made clear at the same time that the U.K. would continue to “listen carefully” to Ukrainian requests for support.

Speaking Wednesday, Sunak’s spokesperson stressed that no decision has yet been taken on providing jets, and that the U.K. is taking a “multi-year approach to our support for Ukraine.”

Zelenskyy earlier addressed an audience of MPs, peers and journalists in Westminster Hall, the medieval heart of the British parliament, as Kyiv braces for an anticipated Russian offensive.

He held talks with Sunak and will be granted an audience with King Charles III.

The British prime minister already announced on Wednesday that the U.K. will now train pilots on the operation of NATO-standard fighter jets as well as marines. That will be coupled with an expansion of British training for Ukrainian military recruits, up from 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers this year.

Sunak’s spokesperson said the U.K. is hoping to receive the first Ukrainian pilots for training in the spring, and confirmed that the initiative would involve training them to fly British planes.

‘Helping hand’

Only a handful of leaders have made such an address in Westminster Hall over the past 30 years, including Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and, more recently, King Charles III.

President Zelenskyy ramped up the pressure on Rishi Sunak joking that he had left parliament two years earlier grateful for “delicious English tea”, but this time he would be “thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes” | Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Addressing assembled lawmakers, Zelenskyy thanked Britain for “extended your helping hand” when the world did not yet know how to respond to Russia’s invasion, and made a series of pointed calls for for Western air help.

Zelenskyy presented the House of Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, with the helmet of one of Ukraine’s most successful pilots, inscribed with a plea for modern fighter jets which read: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.”

Ramping up the pressure on Sunak, Zelenskyy quipped he had left parliament two years earlier grateful for “delicious English tea” but this time added he would be leaving parliament “thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes.”

And he described the prospect of audience with the King as “a truly special moment for me” adding pointedly: “The King is an air force pilot. And in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”

The Ukrainian leader also paid personal tribute to former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was prominent in the audience. “Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible,” he said.

Before Sunak took office, Zelenskyy had formed a bond with Johnson, who was one of Ukraine’s most vocal backers as prime minister and even made a surprise visit to Kyiv after leaving office. Sunak has pledged to maintain the U.K.’s support since taking over in October, although Johnson has urged the West to go further in acceding to demands for fighter jets.

‘Unimaginable hardships’

It marks Zelenskyy’s first trip to the U.K. since Russia’s invasion almost a year ago and only his second confirmed journey outside Ukraine during the war, after visiting the United States.

The Ukrainian president arrived on a Royal Air Force plane at an airport north of London in a visit which had been a closely guarded secret until Wednesday morning.

Recounting his first visit to London in 2020 when he sat in British wartime leader Winston Churchill’s armchair, Zelenskyy said: “I certainly felt something — but it is only now that I know what the feeling was. It is a feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory.”

The Ukrainian leader is also expected to travel to Brussels later this week, although a question mark has been placed over his visit after the plans leaked on Monday.

Hopes have been rising in Brussels that the Ukrainian leader might also make his first visit to European Union institutions since the war began.

Leaders from the 27-nation bloc will be gathering for a summit in Brussels on Thursday, which would enable Zelenskyy to meet with all major leaders in one day. 

The London visit came as Russian forces blasted areas of eastern Ukraine with more artillery bombardments, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday, in what Kyiv authorities believe is part of a new push by the Kremlin’s forces before the invasion anniversary.

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