President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for ‘Wings for Freedom’ as he steps up his call for Western allies to supply Ukraine with fighter jets, in an emotional speech to Britain’s parliament.
On the first leg of a European trip that will also include Paris and Brussels, the Ukrainian president thanked the UK for its role in coaxing other allies into further support for the nearly year-long battle of Kyiv against the full-scale invasion of Russia.
“I appeal to you and to the world: fighter jets for Ukraine. Wings for freedom,” Zelenskyy said to applause and cheers from members of both Houses of the British Parliament at Westminster Hall, where he Only a few months ago, Queen Elizabeth II was in state.
As Zelenskyy flew to London on an RAF plane, Britain pledged more aid to Ukraine, including fighter pilot training, as debate rages over the extent to which the West should go further in arming Kyiv.
After visiting King Charles and Ukrainian troops being trained in the UK, Zelenskyy was due to travel to Paris, where he is due to meet President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He is due to attend a European summit in Brussels on Thursday.
On only his second overseas trip since last year’s February 24 invasion, Zelenskyy thanked the UK for its role in urging other allies to provide more support.
“Britain, you reached out when the world had yet to figure out how to respond,” he said.
The UK is the first Western ally to offer to train Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard aircraft, a move that comes after offering Challenger tanks last month ahead of the United States and Germany.
“I am proud that today we will develop. . . training soldiers to marines and fighter pilots, ensuring that Ukraine is militarily capable of defending its interests in the future,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who greeted Zelenskyy upon arrival at the airport. of Stansted.
In his speech, the Ukrainian leader praised Sunak and Boris Johnson, the former British prime minister, for their leadership.
But concern is growing in the west that Ukraine has a narrow window to launch a spring counteroffensive as Russia gathers forces, prompting allies to send in heavier equipment such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and longer range weapons.
A UK minister said after the speech that “everyone will remember the phrase ‘wings for freedom’ and I don’t see how he won’t end up getting what he wants on that”.
Ukrainian officials are warning that parts and armament for the dozens of Soviet-era jets operated by Kyiv are rapidly running out and the country risks losing its air fleet.
So far, NATO countries have not acceded to Kyiv’s call for Western planes, in particular American F-16s. While the jets would allow Ukraine to protect itself more effectively against Russian air attacks, many in the west remain concerned about the risk of escalation with a nuclear-armed state.
Yuriy Sak, adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, said the British decision “sends a strong signal. . . to Ukraine’s other allies, that the time has come to overcome one of the last remaining hurdles — providing Ukraine with modern fighter aircraft”.
Ukrainian officials said the F-16s could intercept cruise missiles and attack drones that Russia has used to target Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and civilian objects, while providing support to ground forces.
The UK initially trains its fighter pilots on Hawk 2 aircraft during an “Operational Conversion Programme” which usually takes six months. British officials have said that period could be reduced to three months for experienced Ukrainian pilots.
Analysts said the UK would likely train Ukrainian pilots in simulators on standard NATO procedures, cockpit information display, weapons programming formats and tactics.
“The idea (is) that when Ukraine will receive NATO fighters (jets) at some point, conversion training will take less time,” said Justin Bronk, senior researcher at the think tank of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said late last year that about 50 experienced English-speaking Ukrainian pilots had been selected and were ready to begin training on aircraft. western jets. Many of them trained with US forces during military exercises before the war.
The UK will also increase arms deliveries to Ukraine.
The UK Foreign Office announced on Wednesday new penalties against Russia.
“Victory will change the world and it will be a change the world has needed for a long time,” Zelenskyy said in his speech to the British Parliament. “Having won together, any aggressor, whether big or small, will know what awaits them if they attack the international order.”
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard