Ukraine's Zelenskyy makes fighter jets appeal in historic UK Parliament speech

President held talks with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on London visit

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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid an emotional tribute to Britain in an address to the UK parliament on Wednesday, as he used his rare foreign visit to ask for planes to fight Russia.

In a speech laden with history and symbolism, Mr Zelenskyy handed over a Ukrainian airman's helmet inscribed with the words: "We have freedom; give us wings to protect it."

He received a partial answer on Wednesday when British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Britain would begin training Ukrainian marines and jet-fighter pilots.

Mr Zelenskyy held talks with Mr Sunak at Downing Street and met King Charles III in his second known trip abroad since Russia invaded Ukraine ― but offered a special tribute to former prime minister Boris Johnson.

“Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible," said Mr Zelenskyy, speaking in English in the 900-year-old Westminster Hall where Queen Elizabeth II lay in state last year.

"London has stood with Kyiv from day one. From the first seconds and minutes of the full-scale war, Great Britain, you extended your helping hand, when the world had not yet come to understand how to react."

In rhetorical flourishes, Mr Zelenskyy recalled sitting in Winston Churchill's armchair in London and paid tribute to King Charles's brief air force service as a young man.

He called on allies to "do everything possible and impossible to make the world provide us with modern planes".

"Leaving the British parliament two years ago I thanked you for delicious English tea. I will be leaving the parliament today thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes," Mr Zelenskyy said.

"Combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom."

His visit comes amid relentless winter battles with Russia, and expectations that Moscow will launch a new offensive as the war enters its second year.

Britain said the pilot training would “ensure pilots are able to fly sophisticated Nato-standard fighter jets in the future”, as western allies decide whether to offer such aircraft to Ukraine.

It said the training on Nato fighter jets was a “long-term capability investment” and did not say when or whether any planes would be provided.

Mr Zelenskyy was expected to visit Ukrainian troops being trained in Britain later on Wednesday.

At Buckingham Palace, he was told by King Charles: "We've all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long."

Mr Zelenskyy called for trials for Russian leaders and compensation for Ukrainian war losses, as well as tougher sanctions on Russia ― a demand partially met on Wednesday.

New sanctions announced by the UK's Foreign Office covered associates of President Vladimir Putin and companies benefiting from the Russian war effort.

The individuals sanctioned include Boris Titov, who bought land at one of Mr Putin's luxury residences, and Viktor Myachin, the owner of an aircraft maintenance company.

"These new sanctions accelerate the economic pressure on Putin ― undermining his war machine to help Ukraine prevail," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.

Ukraine will also be offered “longer-range capabilities” intended to foil Russian attacks on infrastructure, Mr Sunak's office said, without explaining further.

Mr Zelenskyy visited the US in December, and there has been speculation he will visit Brussels this week.

He was greeted by Mr Sunak at London Stansted Airport before they travelled to Downing Street for talks.

Mr Zelenskyy formed an especially close bond with Mr Johnson, but also expressed gratitude for Mr Sunak's support.

After watching the speech, Mr Johnson joined Mr Zelenskyy's call to provide fighter jets.

"There is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by sending planes now," Mr Johnson said.

Mr Sunak, who made his first trip to Kyiv as prime minister in November, announced last month that Ukraine would be offered a company of British Challenger 2 battle tanks.

Ukrainian troops arrived in the UK last week to begin training on the tanks, as part of a wider programme in Britain expected to involve 20,000 soldiers this year.

Germany and the US followed Britain's move by offering their own main battle tanks. Berlin's decision to release the Leopard 2 model paves the way for other European allies to send their German-made tanks.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday warned against a "public competition to outdo each other" by allies offering weapons.

But Ukrainian diplomats have been pushing western allies to go further by sending modern fighter jets, a prospect Nato has previously baulked at.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy through the years — in pictures

“President Zelenskyy’s visit to the UK is a testament to his country’s courage, determination and fight, and a testament to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries,” Mr Sunak said.

“Since 2014, the UK has provided vital training to Ukrainian forces, allowing them to defend their country, protect their sovereignty and fight for their territory.

“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.”

The UK will work with allies to “co-ordinate collective support to meet Ukraine’s defensive needs”, Downing Street said.

Reports were leaked earlier that Mr Zelenskyy could soon visit Brussels, where a summit of EU leaders is taking place this week. His London trip was kept under wraps until Wednesday.

He addressed the UK parliament by video link last year, invoking William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill in one of several carefully tailored addresses to national legislatures.

His wife, Olena Zelenska, attended Queen Elizabeth's funeral last autumn.

Updated: February 09, 2023, 4:59 AM