Volodymyr Zelensky visited London and Paris on Wednesday (February 8) to plead for fighter jets as Ukraine braces itself for an expected Russian offensive. The Ukrainian president gave a dramatic speech to Parliament before flying to Paris to meet the French and German leaders over dinner at the Elysee Palace.
The leader’s European tour and pleas for more advanced weapons came as his country braces for a Russian offensive while planning its own plans to retake land held by Moscow’s forces. Mr Zelensky thanked the British people for their support since “day one” of Moscow’s invasion nearly a year ago, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said fighter jets were “part of the conversation” about aid to Ukraine.
“Nothing is off the table,” he said at an evening news conference at a British army base. “We must arm Ukraine in the short term, but we must bolster Ukraine for the long term.”
Mr Zelensky said the country needs all kinds of supplies, not just planes, but also ammunition and long-range missiles. He called his visit to Britain “very fruitful”.
He then travelled to Paris for dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Mr Zelensky was greeted at Orly Airport by French defence minister Sebastien Lecornu. He was then met on the steps of the Elysee Palace with a friendly embrace by Mr Macron.
“Ukraine can count on France, its European partners and allies to win the war. Russia cannot and must not win,” Mr Macron said before their working dinner. He said they would discuss the “operational needs” of Ukraine, adding: “We will pursue the effort.”
The visit marks a turnaround in Mr Zelensky’s relations towards France and Germany, which earlier in the war were viewed by many in Ukraine as not doing enough to help. The trip was only his second abroad since Russia invaded on February 24 2022, after a December visit to Washington, where he met President Joe Biden and addressed the US Congress.
Expectations also were growing that he also would meet European Union leaders on Thursday in Brussels, where they are holding a summit. His day began when he arrived on a Royal Air Force plane in London and was greeted with an embrace from Mr Sunak. They held talks at 10 Downing St before Mr Zelensky’s speech to politicians in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of Parliament.
“London has stood with Kyiv since day one,” he said, repeatedly thanking Britons for their aid. The UK has sent Ukraine more than £2 billion in weapons and equipment.
Read more: President Zelensky uses speech to Parliament to ask for ‘wings for freedom’ fighter jets
Wearing his trademark sweatshirt, he urged allies to deliver jets to Ukraine, saying combat aircraft would be “wings for freedom”. In a dramatic gesture, he 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 was trying to soften allies’ reluctance to send advanced fighter jets, both because they are complex to fly and for fear of escalating the war.
The UK has repeatedly said it is not practical to provide Ukraine with British warplanes. But in a shift, the Government said on Wednesday (February 8) it was “actively looking” at whether the country could be sent western jets, and was “in discussion with our allies” about it. Britain also said it would train Ukrainian pilots in Britain on “Nato-standard fighter jets” within weeks.
The Russian embassy in London strongly warned the UK against supplying the warplanes, saying Britain would bear responsibility “for another twist of escalation and the ensuing military-political consequences for the European continent and the entire world”.
Mr Macron has said France has not ruled out sending fighter jets but set conditions, including not leading to an escalation of tensions or using the aircraft “to touch Russian soil”, and not resulting in weakening “the capacities of the French army”.
Mr Zelensky also went to Buckingham Palace, where he met with King Charles and they had tea. The King told the president that “We’ve all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long”.
The London visit came as Russian forces shelled areas of eastern Ukraine in what Kyiv authorities believe is part of a thrust by the Kremlin’s forces before the invasion anniversary. Moscow, meanwhile, insists that Ukraine is preparing its own battlefield push.
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