President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Britain on Wednesday to drum up aid, winning a pledge to train Ukrainian pilots on advanced NATO fighter jets, a big symbolic step up in Western military support.
London was his first stop on only his second trip abroad since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. An EU diplomat said Zelenskiy would travel on to Brussels on Thursday, where the European Union is holding a summit.
“The United Kingdom was one of the first to come to Ukraine’s aid. And today I’m in London to personally thank the British people for their support and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for his leadership,” Zelenskiy posted on social media, under a picture of himself and Sunak at Stansted Airport.
Zelenskiy was also due to meet King Charles III, address parliament and visit Ukrainian troops training in Britain.
“President Zelenskiy’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 in a statement.
Sunak’s office announced additional sanctions on Russia, as well as plans to accelerate the supply of military equipment to Kyiv. For the first time, Ukraine’s air force and marines would now be included in the British training programme.
“The training will ensure pilots are able to fly sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future,” it said.
That appeared to signal a notable shift in Western support, as countries have so far held back from providing jets or other weapons capable of striking deep into Russia.
The statement gave no timeframe for the training, and British officials have said teaching pilots to fly British jets takes years. But the first commitment of its kind signals an endorsement of a long-term security relationship with Kyiv, and could pave the way for allies to send planes.
Last month, Britain was the first Western country to promise Kyiv advanced battle tanks. It offered just 14, but within two weeks the United States and European allies pledged scores, ending months of debate.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who came under fierce criticism for perceived foot-dragging on approving tank deliveries, said arms supplies should be coordinated confidentially rather than announced by individual countries.
“What harms our unity is a public competition to outdo each other,” he told the Bundestag lower house of parliament, according to a manuscript of his speech.
Zelenskiy is likely to attend the EU summit as he pursues support from Western allies at the outset of what Kyiv says will be a decisive second year of the war. He has a standing invitation to the gathering, on Thursday and Friday, although his attendance has not been announced officially.
Western countries have dramatically scaled up their pledges of military support for Ukraine since the start of the new year, culminating with the offer of tanks. Kyiv still wants longer range missiles and warplanes.
After major Ukrainian gains in the second half of 2022, Russia has recovered momentum, with tens of thousands of freshly mobilised troops reaching the front.
Russian forces have made incremental progress in Ukraine’s east in recent weeks, in relentless winter battles which both sides describe as some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
Kyiv says it expects Moscow to broaden that offensive with a big push as the Feb. 24 first anniversary of the invasion approaches.
“They need to have something to show before their people, and have a major desire to do something big, as they see it, by this date,” Ukraine’s national security chief Oleksiy Danilov told Reuters on Tuesday in an interview.
He predicted Russia, which has focused lately on the Donetsk region in the east, would try new attacks on Kharkiv further north or Zaporizhzhia further south.
“How successful they’ll be will depend on us.”
Russia launched its “special military operation” to combat what it describes as a security threat from Ukraine’s ties to the West and claims to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces last year. It says Western supplies of weapons to Kyiv will only prolong the war.
Ukraine says the only way to end the fighting is for the West to give it the capability to drive Russian forces out.
Western fighter jets are at the top of Ukraine’s wishlist. Neither Moscow nor Kyiv enjoys air superiority over Ukraine, limiting the use of piloted air craft on both sides so far.
U.S. President Joe Biden said last month that Washington would not send U.S. F-16s to Ukraine, and British officials have said Britain’s jets require too much training to be useful now. But France and Poland were among countries that kept the door open to sending jets as part of a collective decision by Western allies.
The United States is expected to announce a $2 billion weapons package in coming days that would include new rockets with gliding bombs that double the range of rockets it sent last year. That would put all of Russia’s supply lines in mainland Ukraine as well as parts of the Crimean peninsula within firing distance of Russian troops.