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In U.K. and France visits, Zelensky asks for fighter planes to counter Russia

During a surprise visit in London on Feb. 8, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged lawmakers to send warplanes to ensure victory over Russia. (Video: The Washington Post)
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LONDON — In his second trip abroad since the Russian invasion of his country almost a year ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday urged Britain to deliver warplanes to ensure a victory that would “change the world.”

Speaking to both houses of Parliament, Zelensky said that when he visited the United Kingdom two years ago, he thanked officials for the “delicious English tea, … and I will be leaving Parliament today thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes.”

After the United States, Britain is the largest donor of military assistance to Ukraine. It has committed $2.8 billion so far, according to a recent parliamentary briefing paper, and has pledged to match that in 2023.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Wednesday that 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers had come to Britain for training — and dozens more arrived last week to learn to master the Challenger 2 tanks that his government has promised to deliver next month. Going forward, he announced, training would be extended to Ukrainian marines and fighter jet pilots. The government also announced a fresh round of sanctions that targeted “Putin’s war machine and financial networks.”

But although Sunak said “nothing is off the table,” committing fighter jets is something Britain and other Western allies have been reluctant to do.

“When it comes to fighter combat aircraft, they are of course part of the conversation,” Sunak said in a joint news conference at a British training camp. “That’s why we’ve announced today that we will be training Ukrainian air force on NATO-standard platforms, because the first step in being able to provide this advanced aircraft is to have soldiers or aviators who are capable of using them.”

Sunak’s spokesperson said the prime minister had asked the defense secretary, Ben Wallace, to investigate “what jets we might be able to give, but, to be clear, this is a long-term solution rather than a short-term capability.”

Zelensky flew to Paris on Wednesday night, where he was having dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He repeated the call for planes and heavy weapons at a joint news conference at the Elysee Palace.

“The sooner Ukraine gets long-range heavy weaponry, the sooner our pilots get planes, the sooner this Russian aggression will end and we can return to peace in Europe,” he said.

Macron last month said, similar to Sunak, that no equipment for Ukraine would be excluded from consideration — as long as it would not escalate tensions, “touch Russian soil” or “weaken the capacities of the French army.”

“Russia cannot and must not win this war,” Macron said Wednesday night. “As long as Russia continues to attack, we will continue to adapt and moderate the necessary military support to preserve Ukraine and its future.”

Zelensky said he would meet with other European Union leaders on Thursday, a day the E.U. is holding a summit in Brussels.

Ukrainian officials have hoped for speedy progress on their bid to join the 27-nation bloc. E.U. officials, for their part, have said membership for Ukraine could still be a long ways off, but they have offered encouraging words about shared values.

“I am taking a clear message to Brussels: Ukraine belongs to the European family,” Scholz said alongside Zelensky and Macron on Wednesday.

While in Britain, Zelensky also met with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace. Charles, in his signature pinstripes, greeted the Ukrainian leader, in his trademark olive green, saying, “We’ve all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long.” The two spoke for about a half-hour, and tea was served.

In his remarks to Parliament, Zelensky said: “In Britain, the king is an air force pilot, and in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.” Charles trained as a jet pilot with the Royal Air Force in the 1970s.

Zelensky continued: “Because they are so few, they are so precious that we, the servants of our kings, do everything possible and impossible to make the world provide us with modern planes to empower and protect pilots who will be protecting us.” He then presented the helmet of a Ukrainian pilot to the speaker of the House of Commons, inscribed with the phrase: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.”

Zelensky’s first international trip since the invasion was in December, when he traveled to Washington to address a joint meeting of Congress and rally for continued U.S. support. He stopped in Poland on his return home to Ukraine.

Zelensky tells Congress Ukraine is ‘alive and kicking’

Such is the security operation around these trips that Downing Street announced his visit only a few hours before the aircraft carrying Zelensky arrived at London’s Stansted Airport on Wednesday — a moment broadcast live on the BBC.

“We know freedom will win; we know Russia will lose,” he said in the House of Commons, as lawmakers broke out into thunderous applause. “We know the victory will change the world, and this will be the change that the world has long needed,” he said. “The United Kingdom is marching with us towards the most important victory of our lifetime.”

Britain sees itself as playing a leading role on Ukraine, and Sunak, like his predecessors, is an outspoken supporter.

But Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of RUSI, a military think tank, said Western powers were reluctant to hand over warplanes because of “the eternal debate about escalation risk” and also the practical concerns: “You can’t simply hand over a Western fighter plane and expect it to be used.”

Nonetheless, he said, the offer of pilot training was a “significant signal. It’s the U.K. saying, ‘Over time, we support Ukraine’s ambition to operate Western fighter aircraft,’ and recognizing the reality is something you can’t do overnight. It’s much more complicated to train a fighter pilot than a tank driver, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson has argued that the West should be more willing to send Ukraine sophisticated planes. He was not speaking on behalf of the British government.

“Give the Ukrainians the tools to finish the job. Give them the deep-fire artillery systems, give them the tanks, give them the planes, because they have a plan. They know what they need to do,” he said in a recent speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Putin threatened to kill me, Britain’s Boris Johnson says

The Russian Embassy in London responded to Zelensky’s visit by warning against the use of Western jets in “regions that have come under Russian protection.” The embassy said in a statement that “Russia will know how to respond to any unfriendly actions by the British side.”

Although this was the first time Zelensky addressed the British Parliament in person, he did speak to lawmakers last year via video and received a standing ovation.

Asked by a reporter on Wednesday for his impressions of his time out of Ukraine, “under a peaceful sky,” Zelensky said his visit was focused on conveying gratitude and the urgent need for weapons. “Although, yes, London is a very beautiful city, it’s a shame I don’t have time for this.”

Marisa Bellack and Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.