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Zelenskiy calls on UK government to provide ‘wings for freedom’ to Ukrainian Air Force

On the Ukrainian president’s second trip abroad since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion he renewed a request for combat aircraft to bolster Kyiv’s military capabilities

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meet outside Number 10 Downing Street in London.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meet outside Number 10 Downing Street in London.HENRY NICHOLLS (REUTERS)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pushed for fighter jets to ensure his country’s victory over Russia in a dramatic speech before the UK Parliament, where he also thanked the British people for their support since “Day One” of Moscow’s invasion.

The Ukrainian leader’s surprise visit to Britain in a bid for more advanced weapons comes as Ukraine braces for an expected Russian offensive and hatches its own plans to retake land held by Moscow’s forces. Support from Western allies has been key to Ukraine’s surprisingly stiff defense, and the two sides are engaged in grinding battles.

It was only Zelenskiy’s second foreign trip since Russia invaded on February 24, 2022, after he visited the US in December. The French president’s office said he will host Zelenskiy and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris later in the day.

Hundreds of lawmakers and parliamentary staff packed the 900-year-old Westminster Hall for Zelenskiy’s speech. The Ukrainian president, wearing his trademark olive drab sweatshirt, urged allies to send his country fighter jets, saying combat aircraft would be “wings for freedom.”

In a pointed and dramatic gesture, Zelenskiy presented the speaker of the House of Commons with a Ukrainian air force helmet, inscribed by a Ukrainian pilot: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”

The president is trying to soften the reluctance of Kyiv’s allies to provide advanced fighter jets, both because they are complex to fly and for fear of escalating the war. The UK has repeatedly said it is impractical to provide the Ukrainian military with British warplanes, but its stance may be changing. The government said Wednesday it would train Ukrainian pilots on “NATO-standard fighter jets,” without specifying what kind.

Zelenskiy, who also met with King Charles III, noted that the British monarch was a qualified military pilot. “The king is an air force pilot,” Zekenskiy said, and “in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”

Zelenskiy was greeted with applause, cheers and cries of “Slava Ukraini” – “Glory to Ukraine” – as he arrived in Parliament, where Ukraine’s cause has wide support from both the Conservative government and opposition parties.

Zelenskiy addressed the UK Parliament remotely in March, two weeks after the start of the invasion. He echoed World War II leader Winston Churchill’s famous “we shall never surrender” speech, vowing that Ukrainians “will fight till the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.”

He recalled how on a visit to London before the war, he sat on Churchill’s chair in his subterranean wartime headquarters, and had a feeling that he only now understood. “It was the feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory,” Zelenskiy said.

In past wars, “evil lost,” Zekenskiy told UK lawmakers. “We know Russia will lose and we know victory will change the world.″ The Ukrainian leader thanked British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his predecessor Boris Johnson, who was one of Ukraine’s most vocal backers while he was prime minister. Sunak took office in October and has pledged to maintain the UK’s support. “Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible,” Zelenskiy said.

He also called for stronger sanctions against Moscow, until “Russia is deprived of any possibility to finance this war.”

He said he was speaking on behalf of the brave people of his own country – and thanked Britons for their bravery. “London has stood with Kyiv since Day One,” he said. Zelenskiy has rallied support for his country repeatedly through such speeches – mostly given remotely – to Western lawmakers.

The Ukrainian leader arrived on a Royal Air Force plane in London on Wednesday. Sunak greeted him on the tarmac, tweeting a photo of the two men embracing. The two leaders held talks inside the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. residence before Zelenskiy headed to Parliament.

The UK is one of Kyiv’s biggest military backers and has sent the country more than 2 billion pounds ($2.5 billion) in weapons and equipment. More than 10,000 Ukrainian troops have also been trained at bases in the UK, some on the Challenger 2 tanks that Britain is sending. Britain says it will train 20,000 more in 2023.

“I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future,” Sunak said.

In Brussels, there were increasing expectations that the Ukrainian leader might also make his first visit to European Union institutions since the war began.

Leaders from 27-nation bloc will be gathering for a summit in Brussels on Thursday. That would enable Zelenskiy to meet with all major leaders of the bloc in one day. Zelenskiy has often addressed EU summits only through video calls from Ukraine.

The EU’s legislature has also slated a special plenary session in Brussels for Thursday in the hopes that Zelenskiy will come following his trip to Britain.

The London visit came as Russian forces blasted areas of eastern Ukraine with more artillery bombardments, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday, in what Kyiv authorities believe is part of a new thrust by the Kremlin’s forces before the invasion anniversary.

Ukrainian authorities say the Kremlin’s goal is to complete full control of the Donbas, an expansive industrial area bordering Russia. That would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a major battlefield success after months of setbacks and help him rally public opinion behind the war.

Military analysts say that after a Ukrainian counteroffensive that started last summer and recaptured large areas from Russia, the war has been largely static in recent months. Moscow, meanwhile, believes Ukraine is preparing its own battlefield push.

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