Zelensky pleads with UK for fighter jets in historic parliament address

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has urged Rishi Sunak and other western leaders to give his country fighter jets to defeat invading Russia.

The war leader used his historic address to parliament to pressure the UK and western allies to provide combat jets. “I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words: combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom.”

He added: “Two years ago, I left parliament thanking you for the delicious English tea. Today I will leave parliament today thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes.”

Mr Zelensky, set to meet King Charles III at Buckingham Palace later today, said: “In Britain the King is an airforce pilot. In Ukraine, today, every airforce pilot is a king.”

He also presented Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle with the helmet of a Ukrainian fighter pilot “ace” near the end of his 20-minute speech. The inscription read: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.”

Mr Zelensky’s arrival appeared have an immediate impact on UK policy. Mr Sunak – who had previously ruled out sending planes as “not practial” – has asked defence secretary Ben Wallace to investigate “what jets we may be able to send”, No 10 said.

The PM’s official spokesman said no decision had been taken, but said the UK was in discussion with allies about fighter jets. He described No 10’s approach as a “multi-year” and emphasised that it currently takes five years to train a pilot in the UK.

Mr Sunak announced earlier on Wednesday that British forces would now train Ukrainian figher pilots. The PM said he was “proud” to announce an expansion in training to pilots and marines to help Ukraine able “defend its interests well into the future”.

The PM has come under growing pressure – from predecessor Boris Johnson and others – to reverse his decision not to send British fighter jets to Ukraine.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr Johnson said it was time to “give them exactly what they need to finish the job” – pointing out that the RAF had more than 100 Typhoon jets.

“It is true that the Typhoon is a four-nation plane and that we require the approval of allies for export,” said the former PM. “But there is no reason to think that Germany or others should oppose our decision – these are UK planes.”

Speaker receives fighter pilot’s helmet from Zelensky (PA)
Speaker receives fighter pilot’s helmet from Zelensky (PA)

Mr Zelensky will meet with French president Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris on Wednesday, and is expected to also press them on the need for fighter jets.

The German chancellor criticised the public competition among some countries over who can deliver better weapons to Ukraine, saying it harmed unity.

“We preserve and strengthen this cohesion by first preparing decisions confidentially,” Mr Scholz said, citing his cooperation with US president Joe Biden on the move to supply tanks. “What harms our unity is a public competition to outdo each other along the lines of: battle tanks, submarines, aircraft – who is asking for more?”

Mr Zelensky received thunderous and repeated applause from MPs in Westminster Hall as he thanked the UK for standing by Ukraine “since day one” of Russia’s invasion last February.

He hailed the “strong British character” that had been shown in response – saying the UK had offered “a helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react”.

Signalling out Mr Johnson – seen listening in the hall – for special praise, he said: “Boris: you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible. Thank you.”

Thanking the British people, he added: “You didn’t compromise Ukraine and hence you didn’t compromise your ideals and thus you didn’t compromise the spirit of these great islands.”

Sunak and Zelensky inside No 10 (Simon Walker / No10 Downing Street)
Sunak and Zelensky inside No 10 (Simon Walker / No10 Downing Street)

The UK also announced a fresh package of sanctions on Russian firms and allies of Vladimir Putin to coincide with Mr Zelensky’s surprise visit.

CST, a manufacturer of Russian drones and RT-Komplekt, which produces parts for helicopters used in the war against Ukraine, are among the entities sanctioned.

Five individuals linked to Mr Putin’s luxury residences, including presidential commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights Boris Titov and Aerostart owner Viktor Myachin, were also hit with travel bans and asset freezes.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly said it would “accelerate the economic pressure on Putin” by “undermining his war machine to help Ukraine prevail”.

Mr Sunak will offer longer-range firepower to help counter Russia’s ability to strike at Ukraine’s towns and energy facilities, No 10 said on Wednesday. Ukrainian troops are already being trained in the use of Challenger 2 tanks, expected to be sent to the country next month.

Ahead of Mr Zelensky’s address in parliament, Mr Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer staged a show of unity at PMQs, with both speaking in support of the UK’s support for Ukraine.

Sir Keir said “Putin and all his cronies must stand at the Hague and face justice” when the war is over.

Mr Sunak said he had discussed the situation with Mr Zelensky and she was hopeful “we will see the first indictments very shortly” at the International Criminal Court.