Rishi Sunak paves the way for fighter jets to be sent to Ukraine after Zelensky visit
Rishi Sunak has laid the groundwork for Britain to send fighter jets to Ukraine after an impassioned plea from Volodymyr Zelensky during his surprise trip to the UK.
The Prime Minister ordered the Ministry of Defence to look into how planes could be provided and announced that Ukrainian pilots would be trained in Britain.
The sudden openness to fulfilling Ukraine's request for Nato-standard aircraft came on a day of extraordinary diplomacy.
Mr Zelensky, who was embraced by Mr Sunak on the tarmac of Stansted Airport, was already flying to Britain in an RAF plane by the time news broke of the visit, which had been planned in secret for months.
Addressing MPs and peers in Westminster Hall, Mr Zelensky said: “I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words: combat aircraft for Ukraine. Wings for freedom.”
He presented Parliament with the gift of a helmet from a Ukrainian fighter pilot, inscribed with the words: "We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it."
In the afternoon, Mr Zelensky met the King at Buckingham Palace and was told "we are all worried about you and thinking of your nation" by the monarch.
The call for jets was swiftly backed by Boris Johnson, the former prime minister and a Tory rival of Mr Sunak, who released a statement calling for the UK to give the "extra equipment it needs".
Britain will train Ukrainian pilots on simulators that can be adapted for various different aircraft, meaning they could end up using planes given by other Nato allies rather than the UK. Many of Ukraine's allies possess the US-made F-16.
Sending the UK’s Typhoon jets is complicated because they were co-built with Germany, Italy and Spain, meaning approval from those countries would normally be needed for deployment.
Downing Street said that training an existing pilot in how to use one of the UK jets would normally take three years, arguing that giving planes immediately would not help. But Mr Zelensky later quipped that Ukrainian pilots had already been in training for two and a half years.
The new willingness to consider giving UK planes for the battle against Vladimir Putin’s fighters is a marked change from even just a few weeks ago.
It echoes similar moves in the past to eventually agree to send heavy artillery and tanks for use by Ukrainian soldiers.
On Thursday, Mr Zelensky is set to repeat his pleas for jets in an address to the European Parliament in Brussels. He also pressed the case during a stopover in Paris on Wednesday night to meet President Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Speaking at the Elysée ahead of a dinner, Mr Macron said France would “continue the efforts” to deliver arms to Kyiv.
The Telegraph has been told by an adviser to the Ukrainian president that Kyiv believes the decision to release Western jets will not be as protracted as that over tanks.
"Things are now moving quicker than they were at the beginning of the war," the adviser said, suggesting a decision could be reached at the next meeting of the US-led Ukraine Contact Group at the Ramstein air base in Germany on Feb 14.
Mr Sunak spelled out Britain’s new openness to fighter jets at a joint press conference with Mr Zelensky in Dorset, held after the pair visited Ukrainians being trained by the UK military.
The Prime Minister said: “When it comes to fighter combat aircraft, of course they are part of the conversation - indeed, we have been discussing that today and have been previously.
"That's why we have announced today that we will be training the Ukrainian air force on Nato-standard platforms, because the first step in being able to provide advanced aircrafts is to have soldiers or aviators who are capable of using them.
"That is a process that takes some time. We've started that process today, that's because we are keen to support the president and his country in delivering a victory.
"And nothing is off the table and our leadership on this issue is something we all collectively should be very proud of, and I know the president is grateful for."
Mr Zelensky had earlier presented Parliament with the gift of a helmet from a Ukrainian fighter pilot, inscribed with the words: "We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it."
He added: “I will be leaving the Parliament today thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes.”
In the joint press conference, Mr Zelensky warned that there was a risk of "stagnation" in his country's struggle against Russia if jets and other key weaponry are not sent.
Kyiv and its Western allies are eager to arm Ukrainian fighters as much as is realistically possible before this spring, when a new Russian offensive in the country is expected.
The Russian embassy in London warned on Wednesday that supplying warplanes meant the UK would bear responsibility "for another twist of escalation and the ensuing military-political consequences for the European continent and the entire world”.
While Mr Sunak’s change in position to openly considering sending fighter jets to Ukraine is notable, it remains unclear when or even whether that option will be taken.
Downing Street was careful to make clear that the decision to deploy jets has not been taken. Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, is tasked with reviewing the issue.
The Prime Minister and his press team drew a distinction between weaponry that would help Ukraine in the immediate conflict and the long-term, the indication being that jets fall in the latter category.
But Mr Zelensky notably pushed back on those arguments, saying in the press conference: "Come on, we will be sending you pilots who have already trained for two and a half years."
Mr Johnson, whose allies blame Mr Sunak for playing a key role in his ousting from Downing Street, weighed in publicly calling for the UK to send Ukraine planes.
Mr Johnson said in a statement: “It is time to give the Ukrainians the extra equipment they need to defeat Putin and to restore peace to Ukraine. That means longer range missiles and artillery. It means more tanks. It means planes.
“We have more than 100 Typhoon jets. We have more than 100 Challenger 2 tanks. The best single use for any of these items is to deploy them now for the protection of the Ukrainians - not least because that is how we guarantee our own long-term security.”
Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, warned that Berlin would not be drawn into a “public bidding war” over military support for Ukraine.
Joe Biden, the US president, has already said that America will not provide F-16 jets to Ukraine.