Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has arrived on a surprise visit to the UK on Wednesday as Britain unveils plans to provide Kyiv with more weaponry and assistance — including training for Nato-standard jets.
Zelenskyy, who was greeted by UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on landing at Stansted airport, will address parliament in only his second foreign trip since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of his country nearly a year ago.
The visit to Britain, one of Kyiv’s strongest western backers, comes after the Ukrainian leader’s December trip to Washington and before his expected attendance at a summit in Brussels this week.
It comes as the UK became the first western ally to offer to train Ukrainian pilots on Nato-standard aircraft.
“I am proud that today we will expand . . . 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.
Concern is mounting in the west that Ukraine has a narrow window to launch a counteroffensive in the spring, as Russia amasses forces, prompting allies to send heavier equipment such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and longer-range weapons.
But so far, Nato countries have not acceded to Ukraine’s call for western aircraft, particularly American F-16s, which would allow the country’s air force to better protect its skies from Russian aerial attacks.
“This is a major milestone in terms of further increase of Ukraine’s military capability in the face of Russian aggression,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov, said of Britain’s decision to provide training for pilots.
“It sends a strong signal . . . to Ukraine’s other allies, that the time has come to break through one of the last remaining hurdles — providing Ukraine with modern fighter jets.”
Ukrainian officials have said the F-16s could intercept cruise missiles and attack drones that Russia has used to target Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and civilian objects, while proving support for ground forces.
France is reportedly considering a request from Kyiv to train Ukrainian fighter pilots. But some western governments, including the US, have questioned whether fighter jets should be a priority, citing the lengthy training process.
The move by Sunak’s government follows calls from former UK prime minister Boris Johnson to give Ukrainian troops British fighter jets.
Last week, in an interview with TalkTV’s Piers Morgan Uncensored, Sunak refused to rule out the proposal in the future, but warned that the jets were “incredibly sophisticated pieces of equipment” that required “months if not years” of extensive training.
Ukraine’s air force spokesperson, Yuriy Ignat, said late last year that roughly 50 experienced Ukrainian pilots with English-language skills had been selected and were ready to begin training on western jets. Many of them trained with American forces during military exercises before the war.
The UK will also increase lethal aid provisions to Ukraine.
“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,” Sunak said.
Zelenskyy will also meet Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, chief of defence staff, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, chief of the air staff, alongside other defence and security personnel, as well as King Charles.
Later on Wednesday, the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office will announce further sanctions against Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK government, alongside its western allies, has sanctioned more than 1,200 individuals and more than 120 entities including Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Roman Abramovich, former owner of Chelsea Football Club.