Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy began a tour of Europe on Wednesday in search of better aerial firepower to turn the war against Russia, winning a British pledge to train Ukrainian pilots on advanced NATO fighter jets.
On just his second trip abroad since the war began a year ago, Zelenskiy met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and King Charles. He was later due in Paris for dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
“We’ve all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long, I can’t tell you,” Charles told him.
In a speech to British lawmakers, Zelenskiy hammered home his plea for combat aircraft, which he referred to as “wings for freedom”. Western countries have so far stopped short of providing planes or weapons that can strike deep inside Russia.
He gave a pilot’s helmet to the parliamentary speaker with the message: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it”.
Two years ago he had left the British parliament with thanks for “delicious English tea”, Zelenskiy said. Now he would leave “thanking you in advance for powerful English planes”.
Russia’s embassy to Britain warned London against sending fighter jets to Ukraine, saying such a move would have ramifications for the entire world, TASS news agency reported.
Britain announced plans to expand a programme training Ukraine’s military to ensure its pilots could fly sophisticated jets of NATO military alliance standard.
The announcement gave no timeframe and stopped short of a commitment to provide Kyiv with British jets. But it signalled a shift that could pave the way for other nations to send planes.
Zelenskiy’s tour of Europe, which will also include a European Union summit in Brussels, follows a surprise visit to Washington in December. The choreography of meeting the British, French and German leaders the same day was a sign of his assiduous care in cultivating Western opinion.
Britain announced the addition of new names to its Russia sanctions blacklist, as well as plans for more military equipment for Kyiv, including unspecified longer range weapons.
As Zelenskiy wrapped up his London speech, air raid sirens rang out in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. An all-clear later sounded.
Germany’s Scholz said he expected strong support for Ukraine from this week’s EU summit and a new round of European sanctions on Russia around the anniversary of the invasion.
Scholz, publicly more cautious than some other Western leaders on arms deliveries, said decisions on weapons were best coordinated behind the scenes rather than announced by countries in a “public competition to outdo each other”.
His defence minister said Western allies could deliver a first battalion of about 31 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine in the early months of this year.
Western countries have scaled up pledges of aid, including the offer last month 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, sending tens of thousands of freshly mobilised troops to the front. They have made incremental progress 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 Feb. 24 anniversary of the invasion approaches.
“When the offensive starts, my president won’t be able to travel in March,” said a senior Ukrainian official, stressing the urgent need for more Western arms.
“We will never use these systems to capture a part of the territory of another country, we don’t want a part of Russia. But we will fight for our territory.”
In the Netherlands, prosecutors concluded an investigation into the 2014 downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine, saying evidence pointed to involvement by Russian President Vladimir Putin but was insufficient to charge him.
A Dutch court has convicted two Russian agents and a pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist of murder for the missile strike which killed 298 passengers and crew. Moscow denies blame.
Russia launched its “special military operation” last year to combat what it describes as a security threat from Ukraine’s ties to the West, and claims to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces. It says Western supplies will 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 wish list. Neither Moscow nor Kyiv enjoys air superiority over Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden said last month Washington would not send U.S. F-16s to Ukraine, and British officials have said their jets require too much training to be useful now. France and Poland are among countries that have kept the door open to sending jets as part of a collective Western decision.
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.