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LONDON – Rishi Sunak has asked his defense chief to look into whether Ukraine can supply fighter jets “in the long term”.
During a surprise UK visit from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Defense Secretary Ben Wallace was now “actively looking at whether we will send jets to Ukraine”.
He told reporters: “The prime minister has tasked the defense secretary to investigate what jets we might be able to provide – but that’s a long-term solution.”
The comments came hours after Zelenskyy delivered a rare speech to both houses of the British Parliament, during which the Ukrainian leader made a fresh appeal for his country to provide fighter jets to repel Russian aggression.
According to an official in Paris, Zelenskiy’s next stop will be France.
Downing Street has previously argued that it is “not practical” to provide Ukraine with highly complex jets that would require extensive training to use, although it has made clear at the same time that the UK will continue to “listen carefully” to Ukrainian requests for support.
Speaking on Wednesday, Sunac’s spokesman stressed that no decision had yet been made on the delivery of the jets and that the UK was taking a “multi-year approach to our support for Ukraine”.
Zelensky earlier addressed an audience of MPs, peers and journalists at Westminster Hall, the medieval heart of the British Parliament, as Kyiv braced for an expected Russian attack.
He negotiates with Sunak and gets an audience with King Charles III.
The British Prime Minister has already announced on Wednesday that the UK will now train pilots to operate NATO-standard fighter jets as well as naval forces. This will coincide with an expansion of British training for Ukrainian military recruits, from 10,000 to 20,000 troops this year.
A Sunak spokesman said the UK hoped to receive the first Ukrainian pilots for training in the spring and confirmed the initiative would train them to fly British aircraft.
Only a handful of leaders have given such a speech in Westminster Hall in the past 30 years, including Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and, most recently, King Charles III.
Addressing the assembled lawmakers, Zelensky thanked Britain for “extending your helping hand” when the world still didn’t know how to respond to the Russian attack, and made a series of calls for Western air support.
Zelensky presented House of Commons Speaker Lindsey Hoyle with the helmet of one of Ukraine’s most successful pilots, inscribed with a plea for modern fighter jets that read: “We have freedom, give us wings to defend it.”
Adding to the pressure on Sunak, Zelenskiy said he had left parliament two years ago grateful for “delicious English tea” but added this time he would leave parliament “thanking you all in advance for the mighty English plane”.
And he described the prospect of an audience with the king as “a really special moment for me,” adding bluntly: “The king is an air force pilot. And today in Ukraine, every air force pilot is a king.”
The Ukrainian leader also paid personal tribute to former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was prominent in the audience. “Boris, you brought others together when it seemed absolutely impossible,” he said.
Before Sunak took office, Zelensky had forged a bond with Johnson, who had been one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters as prime minister and even made a surprise visit to Kiev after leaving office. Sunak has pledged to maintain the UK’s support since taking office in October, although Johnson has urged the West to go further to meet demands for fighter jets.
It is Zelensky’s first visit to the UK since Russia’s invasion nearly a year ago and his second confirmed trip outside Ukraine during the war, following a visit to the US.
Ukraine’s president arrived on a Royal Air Force plane for a visit to an airport north of London that remained closely guarded as of Wednesday morning.
Referring to his first visit to London in 2020, when he sat in British wartime leader Winston Churchill’s armchair, Zelensky said: “I definitely felt something — but only now know what the feeling was. It’s a feeling that bravery gives you through the most unimaginable hardships and finally rewards you with victory.”
The Ukrainian leader is also expected to travel to Brussels later this week, although a question mark has been raised over his visit after the plans were leaked on Monday.
Hopes are rising in Brussels that Ukraine’s leader may also make his first visit to EU institutions since the war began.
Leaders of the 27-nation bloc will gather for a summit in Brussels on Thursday, enabling Zelensky to meet all major leaders in one day.
The visit to London came as Russian forces bombarded areas of eastern Ukraine with more artillery bombardment, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday, in what Kyiv authorities believe is part of a new push by the Kremlin’s forces ahead of the anniversary of the attack.