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Zelenskyy hails UK support as Sunak considers possibility of sending jets to Ukraine

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, shakes hands with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after arriving at 10 Downing Street in central London on Feb. 8, 2023, ahead of their meeting. (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

The U.K. is discussing sending long-range missiles to Ukraine and assessing the long-term possibility of sending fighter jets to help in the war against Russia, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

Speaking alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who was on a surprise visit to the U.K., Sunak said “nothing is off the table” and that Britain had just begun assessing how planes could form part of an enhanced military aid effort. “Of course they are part of the conversation,” Sunak said.

Sunak’s remarks are the clearest sign yet that the U.K. is seriously considering acceding to Ukraine’s biggest ask in the war, almost a year after Russia’s invasion. Earlier, Zelenskyy urged British lawmakers in Westminster to provide planes, telling them, “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”

British tanks would be ready for use in Ukraine next month, Sunak said, and U.K. troops will begin training Ukrainian pilots in the spring. He spoke on a visit with Zelenskyy to meet Ukrainian forces training in southwest England.

Hours earlier, Zelenskyy reiterated that his military priorities are armored vehicles and long-range missiles, addressing Members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords in a rare joint session.

Sunak’s spokesman Max Blain told reporters that Britain isn’t looking to send Typhoon jets in the immediate future, but rather sees the possibility of sending planes as a long-term solution.

Ukraine has repeatedly asked allies to send fighter jets to bolster its military as it gears up for an expected escalation in fighting. U.S. President Joe Biden has previously ruled that out, as have the U.K. and Germany.

Blain warned that it takes five years to train up British pilots to fly the “complicated” pieces of equipment, while adding that trainers would look at ways to shorten that for Ukrainian pilots as much as practicable.

Zelenskyy earlier arrived on a Royal Air Force plane before heading into London to meet Sunak in Downing Street. He later met King Charles III before traveling on to southwest England.

Addressing lawmakers in English in Westminster Hall, the centuries-old venue where Queen Elizabeth II lay in state after her death, Zelenskyy praised the U.K. for backing Ukraine from the very start of the war. “London has stood with Kyiv since day one,” he said, insisting that Russia was destined to lose.

“The United Kingdom is marching with us towards the most important victory of our lifetime. It will be a victory over the very idea of the war. After we win together, any aggressor, it doesn’t matter, big or small, will know what awaits him if he attacks international order,” Zelenskyy said.

Speaking at prime minister’s questions before Zelenskyy’s address, Sunak confirmed that the U.K. would ramp up military assistance, including training for Ukrainian marines and for pilots on advanced combat aircraft.

“We will continue to support Ukraine to ensure a decisive military victory on the battlefield this year,” Sunak told MPs.

The trip to the U.K. comes after a visit to the U.S. in December, when Zelenskyy met Biden and addressed Congress, and will likely be seen as a vote of gratitude to the U.K. for being one of Ukraine’s primary suppliers of military aid.

U.K. forces trained 10,000 Ukrainian troops in 2022 and aims to assist at least 20,000 more this year, Sunak said in Parliament. Britain is also providing Challenger 2 tanks as part of a £2 billion ($2.4 billion) weapons and equipment package.

Zelenskyy previously addressed Britain’s Parliament via video link in March 2022, two weeks after the start of the invasion. He echoed World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill, vowing that Ukrainians “will fight till the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.” It drew him a standing ovation from lawmakers.

Zelenskyy’s arrival will boost Sunak, who has faced domestic criticism over a rocky start to his premiership and a lackluster cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday. It also shows that Sunak’s decision not to send fighter jets to Ukraine has not affected the relationship with Kyiv. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had urged Sunak to increase support by sending planes.

Sunak said the U.K. would stand with Ukraine “for years to come,” and backed a call by Labour Party leader Keir Starmer for Russia to be held accountable for crimes committed in Ukraine.

“One of the things I discussed with President Zelenskyy this morning is our support for the work of the ICC where, thanks to the efforts of U.K. members, I’m hopeful we will see the first indictments very shortly,” Sunak said.


© 2023 Bloomberg L.P

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