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‘Give us wings’: Zelensky seeks weaponry in surprise trips to London and Paris

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shaking hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to 10 Downing St. in London on Wednesday.
(Victoria Jones / Press Assn.)
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought Western support for his country in surprise visits to Britain and France on Wednesday, pushing for fighter jets to battle Russian invaders in a dramatic speech to the U.K. Parliament, and then flying to Paris to meet the French and German leaders over dinner at the Elysee Palace.

The embattled leader’s European tour and pleas for more advanced weapons came as Ukraine braces for an expected Russian offensive and hatches its own plans to retake land held by Moscow’s forces. Western support has been key to Kyiv’s surprisingly stiff defense, and the two sides are engaged in grinding battles.

Zelensky thanked the British people for their support since “Day One” of Moscow’s invasion nearly a year ago, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said fighter jets were “part of the conversation” about aid to Ukraine.

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“Nothing is off the table,” he said at an evening news conference at a British army base. “We must arm Ukraine in the short term, but we must bolster Ukraine for the long term.”

Zelensky said Ukraine needs all kinds of supplies, not just planes, but also ammunition and long-range missiles.

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“Without this, there would be stagnation which will not bring anything good,” he said, calling his visit to Britain “very fruitful.”

Then it was off to Paris for dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
French President Emmanuel Macron, center, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a joint news conference at the Elysee Palace on Feb. 8, 2023, in Paris.
(Sarah Meyssonnier / Associated Press)

Zelensky was greeted Wednesday night on the steps of the Elysee Palace with a friendly embrace by Macron, and then all three leaders headed inside. The visit marks a turnaround in Zelensky’s relations toward France and Germany, which earlier in the war were viewed by many in Ukraine as not doing enough to help.

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“Ukraine can count on France, its European partners and allies to win the war. Russia cannot and must not win,” Macron said before their working dinner. He added that they would discuss the “operational needs” of Ukraine.

Scholz indicated that Zelensky will attend a summit of EU leaders in Brussels starting Thursday, which he described as a “signal of European solidarity and community.”

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Wednesday’s travel was only the second foreign trip Zelensky has made since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. In December, the Ukrainian leader visited Washington, where he met with President Biden and addressed the U.S. Congress.

His day began when he arrived on a Royal Air Force plane in London and was greeted on the tarmac with an embrace from Sunak. They held talks at the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. residence before Zelensky’s speech to lawmakers in the 900-year-old Westminster Hall, the oldest — and, on a cold winter day, unheated — part of Parliament.

“London has stood with Kyiv since Day One,” he said, repeatedly thanking Britons for their aid. The U.K. has sent Ukraine more than $2.5 billion in weapons and equipment.

Wearing his trademark olive drab sweatshirt, he urged allies to deliver jets to Ukraine, saying combat aircraft would be “wings for freedom.”

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Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, holds a Ukrainian helmet.
Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, holds the helmet of one of the most successful Ukrainian pilots, which was presented to him by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as he addressed Parliament in Westminster Hall, London, on Feb. 8, 2023.
(Stefan Rousseau / Pool via Associated Press)

In a dramatic gesture, Zelensky presented the speaker of the House of Commons with a Ukrainian air force helmet, inscribed by a Ukrainian pilot: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”

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The president was trying to soften allies’ reluctance to send advanced fighter jets, both because they are complex to fly and for fear of escalating the war.

The U.K. has repeatedly said it’s not practical to provide Ukraine with British warplanes. But in a shift, the government said Wednesday it was “actively looking” at whether Ukraine could be sent Western jets, and was “in discussion with our allies” about it.

Britain also said it would train Ukrainian pilots in Britain on “NATO-standard fighter jets” within weeks.

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Sunak spokesman Max Blain said the government was exploring “what jets we may be able to give” over the coming years, but had not made a decision on whether to send its F-35 or Typhoons.

“We think it is right to provide both short-term equipment … that can help win the war now, but also look to the medium to long term to make sure Ukraine has every possible capacity it requires,” he said.

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Ukraine has sought Western fighter jets since early in the war to bolster its force of Soviet-made MiG-29 and Su fighters. The success of its air force in defending its skies and territory despite Russia’s bigger numbers helped push back Moscow’s initial assault.

The Russian Embassy in London strongly warned the U.K. against supplying the warplanes, saying Britain would bear responsibility “for another twist of escalation and the ensuing military-political consequences for the European continent and the entire world.”

Macron has said France hasn’t ruled out sending fighter jets but set conditions, including not leading to an escalation of tensions or using the aircraft “to touch Russian soil,” and not resulting in weakening “the capacities of the French army.”

Sunak and Zelensky flew by helicopter to Lulworth Camp, a base in southwest England, where they met Ukrainian troops being trained on the Challenger 2 tanks the U.K. is sending as part of the hundreds that Kyiv says it needs. More than 10,000 Ukrainian troops have been trained in the U.K., and Britain says it will train 20,000 more in 2023.

“I am proud that today we will expand that 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.

Zelensky also went to Buckingham Palace, where he met with King Charles III, who greeted him with a broad smile and a warm handshake before they had tea. The king told the president that “we’ve all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long.”

In his Parliament speech, Zelensky noted that Charles was a qualified military pilot.

“The king is an air force pilot,” Zelensky
said, and “in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”

Britain's King Charles III shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Britain’s King Charles III holds an audience with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, at Buckingham Palace on Feb. 8, 2023.
(Aaron Chown / Pool via Associated Press)

Zelensky was greeted with applause, cheers and cries of “Slava Ukraini” — “Glory to Ukraine” — as he arrived in Parliament, where his cause has wide support.

He had addressed the U.K. Parliament remotely in March, two weeks after the start of the invasion. He echoed World War II leader Winston Churchill’s famous “never surrender” speech, vowing that Ukrainians “will fight till the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.”

On Wednesday, he recalled how on a prewar visit to London, he sat in Churchill’s chair in his subterranean wartime headquarters, and had a feeling that only now he understands: “It was the feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory.”

In past wars, “evil lost,” he told U.K. lawmakers. “We know Russia will lose and we know victory will change the world.″

He also urged stronger sanctions against Moscow until “Russia is deprived of any possibility to finance this war.”

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Coinciding with the visit, the U.K. government announced new sanctions against six entities that Britain said supplied equipment to the Russian military. CST, a manufacturer of Russian drones and parts for helicopters used against Ukraine, was among them.

The London visit came as Russian forces shelled areas of eastern Ukraine in what Kyiv authorities believe is part of a thrust by the Kremlin’s forces before the invasion anniversary. Moscow, meanwhile, believes Ukraine is preparing its own battlefield push.

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