Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Britain on Wednesday, February 8, to drum up aid, winning a pledge to train Ukrainian pilots on advanced NATO fighter jets, a big symbolic step up in Western military support against Russia’s invasion.
On just his second trip abroad since Russian forces swept into Ukraine on February 24 last year, he met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and thanked Britain for “marching with us towards the most important victory of our lifetime”.
But he repeatedly hammered home a call for combat aircraft, which he referred to as “wings for freedom”.
Ukraine “will do everything possible and impossible to make the world provide us with modern planes to empower and protect pilots who will be protecting us,” Zelenskiy told hundreds of British lawmakers in London’s Westminster Hall.
Shortly before his arrival, Sunak’s office announced plans to expand a program training Ukraine’s military to include its air force, “to ensure pilots are able to fly sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future”.
The announcement gave no time frame and stopped short of a commitment to provide Kyiv with British jets. But it signalled a notable shift in support that could pave the way for other countries to send planes, so far ruled out by countries wary of sending weapons capable of striking deep into Russia.
Closing his remarks, Zelenskiy said two years ago he had left the British parliament thanking lawmakers for “delicious English tea”; now he would leave “thanking you in advance for powerful English planes”.
As he wrapped up his speech in London, air raid sirens rang out in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Sunak told parliament that Britain would give Ukraine the support it needs “to ensure a decisive military victory on the battlefield this year”.
Zelenskiy was also due to meet King Charles and visit Ukrainian troops training in Britain, before travelling on to Brussels, where he is expected to attend a summit of European Union leaders.
During his UK visit, Britain announced the addition of new names to its Russia sanctions blacklist, as well as plans to accelerate the supply of military equipment to Kyiv, including unspecified longer range weapons.
Last month Britain was the first Western country to offer battle tanks, pledging 14 of them a little more than a week before the United States and European allies pledged scores.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, publicly more cautious than some other Western leaders on arms deliveries, told lawmakers in Berlin decisions on weapons were best when coordinated behind the scenes, rather than announced separately by countries in a “public competition to outdo each other”.
Scholz also said he expected strong demonstrations of support for Ukraine from this week’s EU summit, and a new round of European sanctions on Russia around the anniversary of the invasion.
Western countries have dramatically scaled up their pledges of military support for Ukraine since the start of the new year, culminating with the offer 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, with tens of thousands of freshly mobilized troops reaching the front.
Russian forces have made incremental progress in Ukraine’s east in recent weeks, in relentless winter battles which both sides describe as some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
Kyiv says it expects Moscow to broaden that offensive with a big push as the February 24 first anniversary of the invasion approaches.
“They need to have something to show before their people, and have a major desire to do something big, as they see it, by this date,” Ukrainian national security chief Oleksiy Danilov told Reuters on Tuesday in an interview.
He predicted Russia, which has focused lately on the Donetsk region in the east, would try new attacks on Kharkiv further north or Zaporizhzhia further south.
“How successful they’ll be will depend on us.”
Russia launched its “special military operation” to combat what it describes as a security threat from Ukraine’s ties to the West and claims to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces last year. It says Western supplies of weapons to Kyiv will only prolong the war.
Ukraine says the only way to end the fighting is for the West to give it the capability to drive Russian forces out.
Western fighter jets are at the top of Ukraine’s wishlist. Neither Moscow nor Kyiv enjoys air superiority over Ukraine, limiting the use of piloted air craft on both sides so far.
US President Joe Biden said last month Washington would not send US F-16s to Ukraine, and British officials have said Britain’s jets require too much training to be useful now. But France and Poland were among countries that kept the door open to sending jets as part of a collective decision by Western allies.
The United States is expected to announce a $2 billion weapons package in coming days that would include new rockets with gliding bombs that double the range of rockets it sent last year. That would put all of Russia’s supply lines in mainland Ukraine as well as parts of the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula within firing distance of Russian troops. – Rappler.com
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