- By Kate Whannell
- Political journalist, BBC News
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the UK to provide his country with fighter jets as he addressed parliament on his first visit to the UK since Russia invaded Ukraine.
In an impassioned plea, he compared fighter jets to “wings for freedom”.
His call comes as the UK announced it would begin training Ukrainian forces to fly NATO-standard fighter jets.
President Zelensky concluded his speech with the hope that he would soon thank the UK for the provision of aircraft.
Downing Street later said Mr Sunak had asked the Defense Secretary to investigate jets the UK could potentially donate to Ukraine, but stressed it was “a long-term solution”.
Addressing a huge crowd of MPs and peers in the historic setting of Westminster Hall, Speaker Zelensky said: ‘Freedom will win – we know Russia will lose’, adding that the UK stood with his country in marching towards “the most important victory of our lifetime”.
Thanking the UK for its “courage”, he said the country, through its support for Ukraine, had not compromised “the spirit and ideals of these great islands”.
He also singled out Boris Johnson for his praise, saying the former prime minister united others ‘when it seemed impossible’.
During his speech, which was greeted with applause, the Ukrainian leader presented the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, with a Ukrainian pilot’s helmet.
The inscription on the helmet reads: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.”
Reflecting on his last visit to the UK, he remembers thanking his hosts “for the delicious English tea”.
“I will leave Parliament today, thanking you all in advance for the powerful English planes.”
Mr Johnson echoed his pleas in a statement saying: ‘It is time to give the Ukrainians the extra equipment they need to defeat Putin and bring peace to Ukraine. That means missiles and artillery to longer range means more tanks means planes.”
BBC defense correspondent Jonathan Beale said that although the president had made an impassioned plea for Britain to give fast jets to Ukraine, it still seemed unlikely that he get them, at least for now.
He says it is still possible that a few Western countries will supply a small number of modern fighter jets to Ukraine at some point in the future, and that although Kyiv has made it clear that it would like F-16s American-made, which are operated by a number of NATO countries, so far, US President Joe Biden has said no.
President Zelensky is acutely aware of the need to keep his Western backers engaged in this war, lest “compassion fatigue” set in and the supply of weapons and financial aid dry up.
He takes a risk every time he travels anywhere and the UK is only the third country he has visited since the start of the war, the others being the US and Poland.
But he knows that his powerful charisma and persuasive rhetoric can translate directly into the military aid programs that Ukraine relies on.
If these were to stop, the Ukrainians would have little or no hope of pushing the Russian troops out of their country.
As the first anniversary of the Russian invasion approaches, the UK has announced that its training of Ukrainian forces will be expanded to cover marines, as well as pilots of NATO-standard fighter jets.
Western countries have been considering how to bolster their support for Ukraine as the country prepares for another Russian offensive later this month.
The expansion of the UK’s training program signals a change, after the UK said it was “not practical” for it to send its planes to Ukraine.
Earlier this year, the UK also announced that it would send 14 main battle tanks to Ukraine. President Zelensky praised Mr Sunak for taking this “powerful defensive step”.
In his address, he also urged the UK and the West to continue to impose sanctions “until Russia is deprived of any possibility of financing the war”.
“Anyone who invests in terrorism must be held accountable, anyone who invests in violence must compensate those who have suffered from terrorism.”
On Wednesday, the UK announced a new round of sanctions targeting Russia.
The latest sanctions target IT companies, as well as manufacturers of military equipment such as drones and helicopter parts.
Before addressing Parliament, President Zelensky spoke to Mr Sunak in Downing Street and met King Charles.
On Wednesday afternoon, he joined the prime minister on a visit to the southwest where Ukrainian troops are training in the use of Challenger 2 tanks.
The pair signed the London Declaration – a statement affirming the UK-Ukraine partnership – before holding a joint press conference.
Later, he is expected to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
‘The Real Deal’
Political journalist Brian Wheeler of Westminster Hall
“He’s the real deal. You don’t have many leaders like that in the world.”
Labour’s Stephen Doughty – like many others crammed into Westminster Hall – marveled at President Zelensky’s speech.
One or two were overcome with emotion, wiping away a tear as they listened to his impassioned words, delivered entirely in English.
For Mr. Doughty, a member of Ukraine’s all-party group, who recently visited the country, it was Mr. Zelensky’s ‘V for victory’ sign at the end of his speech that was the most powerful moment .
The president had made reference to Sir Winston Churchill, as he often does when addressing a British audience.
But it is the fact that Mr Zelensky was bathed in sunlight through stained glass windows that are a memorial to those lost in two world wars who will remain with the Labor MP.
“The symbolism of this is incalculable,” he said.