Ukraine's Zelenskiy calls for 'wings for freedom' fighter jets on trip to Europe
By Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill
LONDON/LULWORTH CAMP ARMY BASE, England (Reuters) -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Britain and others on Wednesday to give Ukraine "wings for freedom" by sending combat aircraft to help turn the tide against Russia's offensive, hoping to overcome Western reluctance to take that step.
Western countries have scaled up their pledges of military aid for Ukraine this year with promises of hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles as well as longer-range weapons, but have so far refused to deliver war planes.
Britain said nothing was off the table and it wanted to start training Ukrainian fighter pilots to fly "sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future".
It is also investigating which jets London could send, and discussing with allies the supply chain needs around such aircraft, but with a caveat that this was long-term action rather than meeting Kyiv's immediate demands.
"The first step in being able to provide advanced aircrafts is to have soldiers or aviators that are capable of using them. That is a process that takes some time. We've started that process today," Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said alongside Zelenskiy at an army camp in Dorset, southwest England.
Britain also announced an immediate surge of military deliveries to help Ukraine fend off an intensifying Russian offensive.
Earlier Zelenskiy praised Britain and the West for the support and the sanctions they had provided so far in an address to lawmakers from across the political spectrum in the Gothic expanse of parliament's Westminster Hall in London.
But, offering an air force helmet with the message "we have freedom, give us wings to protect it" to the speaker of the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament, Zelenskiy called on the West to deliver up the fighter jets.
"I appeal to you and the world, with simple and yet the most important words - combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom."
Later, alongside Sunak, Zelenskiy said via an interpreter that he had heard from the British leader "the desire to provide fighter jets".
Sunak's spokesperson said the defence secretary would investigate what jets Britain might be able to give, "but to be clear this is a long-term solution, rather than a short-term capability which is what Ukraine needs most now".
In response, news agency TASS cited Russia's embassy to Britain as warning that any delivery of British fighter jets to Ukraine would have serious military and political ramifications.
London was Zelenskiy's first stop on only his second trip abroad since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, after a visit to Washington in December. He was expected in Paris later on Wednesday and then Brussels.
Zelenskiy also met with King Charles at Buckingham Palace.
"We've all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long, I can't tell you," Charles said.
Russia is bringing tens of thousands of recently mobilised troops to the battlefield to try to break through Ukrainian defences in eastern Ukraine in what it calls a special military operation launched to stop Ukraine's shift towards the West.
Ukraine's allies have sent tanks and armoured vehicles but said it will take time to train Ukrainian forces to use them.
Britain has trained 10,000 Ukrainian troops brought to battle readiness in the last six months and will train a further 20,000 soldiers this year, the government said.
Last week, Ukrainian troops arrived in Britain to learn how to command Challenger 2 tanks which Sunak said would be operating in Ukraine by next month.
The move to train pilots was likely to involve simulators rather than advanced Western aircraft and did not mean Britain would soon supply such jets, Justin Bronk, an expert at the RUSI think tank, said on Twitter. But it would help pilots prepare for possible future such deliveries, he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Muvija M, Sachin Ravikumar, Alistair Smout and Farouq Suleiman; editing by William James, Kate Holton, Philippa Fletcher, Nick Macfie and Diane Craft)