Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made a surprise visit to the UK, his first since Russia’s invasion of his country almost a year ago. He touched down at Stansted airport in Essex on Wednesday 8 February to be met by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, before heading to Downing Street for talks.
The PM promised extra military support, having already announced plans to train Ukrainian pilots, paving the way for them to eventually being able to fly sophisticated Nato-standard jets. Whilst naturally being delighted with the help being provided, Mr Zelensky was keen to make a plea for the UK to provide fighter jets, to really take the fight to Putin. Mr Sunak confirmed that he had asked his defence secretary to investigate what jets the UK could potentially give to Ukraine for a “a long-term solution”.
The president moved on to address a huge assembly of MP’s and peers in the historic Westminster Hall, where he delivered a rousing speech, punctuated with applause throughout, in which he thanked the UK for its support of his nation. He singled out Boris Johnson for praise saying the former PM had united others “when it seemed impossible”.
The Ukrainian leader also handed the House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle a helmet of a Ukrainian pilot, before giving a stirring explanation of its significance. He later had an audience with King Charles III, in a thirty minute meeting at Buckingham Palace, which Mr Zelensky described as a “great honour”, before visiting some of his troops in training.
Sanctions and training stepping up
With the first anniversary of the illegal invasion approaching, President Zelensky urged the UK and the West to continue imposing sanctions until Russia is deprived of any possibility to finance their war effort, with the latest targetting IT companies, as well as manufacturers of military equipment, such as drones and helicopter parts.
With Ukraine readying itself for a renewed offensive against them in the coming weeks, there appears to have been a shift in the UK’s outlook, as they announced training of Ukrainian forces is to be expanded to cover marines, in addition to jet pilot, after previously confirming that 14 battle tanks were already being sent to the front line.
Some 10,000 Ukrainian recruits have been trained in the UK in the past six months and last week the first troops arrived in Britain to learn how to command the Challenger 2 tanks that are being provided.
The PM spoke of his pride in how the country had “come together to stand by Ukraine when the moment mattered”, whilst Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Zelensky had “symbolised the heroism, the resolve, and the bravery of his people” since the invasion began.
Speech delivered with great passion and intelligence
In his speech which took place in the imposing Westminster Hall, Mr Zelensky began by offering his and his country’s thanks to the people of the UK for everything they have done to this point of the war. He recalled his previous visit in 2020 when he met with members of the Royal Family, and visited the Churchill War Rooms. He told of how his guide on that day had offered him the opportunity to sit down on the war time leader’s chair, where many huge decisions were made and said he felt something significant at the time, but which he only now fully understands.
He explained: “Bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory.” He moved on to recognise that the UK has been standing with Kyiv “since day one”. He continued to say that his country would “always come out on top of evil”, as it was at the core of theirs and Britain’s traditions, before stating that the UK is marching with them to the most important victory of a lifetime.
When the Ukraine win “it will change the world in a change that the world has long needed” he said; explaining that “after we win together, any aggressor will know what awaits him if he attacks international order.” He acknowledged that the UK had actually been among the very few who helped before the large scale invasion began. With an obvious reference to Putin, Mr Zelensky insisted that anyone who invests in terror had to be held accountable, and anyone who invests in violence had to compensate those who have suffered from it.
No holding back in push for fighter jets
He thanked Mr Sunak again for committing tanks to the cause and gave special mention to former PM Boris Johnson who he said had got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible, without ever compromising Ukraine. Then in a far from subtle plea for the provision of fighter jets, the president presented Mr Hoyle, the Commons speaker, with a Ukrainian fighter pilot’s helmet. He explained that the pilot it belonged to is “one of the most successful aces, and he is one of our kings”, before translating the writing on the headgear which read: “we have freedom, give us wings to protect it”.
Putting Mr Sunak in a slightly awkward position he finished his speech by saying that two years ago he thanked everyone when he left for the “delicious English tea”, before announcing that upon leaving parliament this time he would be “thanking you all in advance for powerful English planes,” which was met by laughter and loud applause from all across the hall. His final words were: “God bless the King” and “Slava Ukraini”, which translates as “Glory to Ukraine!”
“Four-nation” planes could be sent
Defence Minister Ben Wallace is “actively” looking into whether the UK government may be able to sent military jets to Ukraine, although a spokesperson was quick to stress that the government has not yet made a decision.
Mr Johnson suggested the use of Typhoon jets of which he said the country had more than a hundred. Although he did declare that they are what are referred to as “four-nation planes” and as such, would require the support of Germany, Italy and Spain for export. He went on to say: “The best single use for them is to deploy them now for the protection of the Ukrainians, not least because that is how we guarantee our own long-term security.”
Proud moment for president in meeting the King
Mr Zelensky described meeting His Majesty the King as “truly special”, remarking that for Ukraine and himself in particular, he wanted to convey words of gratitude for the support Charles showed to them when he was still the Prince of Wales. He said profoundly: “In Britain, the king is an air force pilot and in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”
The pair were joined by the King’s principal private secretary Sir Clive Alderton and from Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, head of the president’s office, and Dmytro Kuleba, minister of foreign affairs. They held a 30 minutes conversation about the continuing conflict and the part Britain has played and can continue to play, in support. King Charles imparted his genuine feelings when telling the president: “We have all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long, I cannot tell you how worried we have been.”
In response Mr Zelensky thanked the King for “finding the time for him” and told the monarch how grateful he was for the “warm welcome” and for “supporting Ukrainian citizens who have taken refuge from the war in the United Kingdom.” He also congratulated Charles on his accession to the throne and “wished peace and prosperity to the British people”.
Huge amount of military equipment sent across
In the year since the invasion occurred, the UK has spent £2.3bn on military assistance, putting it second only to the United States, and the government have promised to match that spending over the next year.
Apart from the Challenger 2 tanks being provided, other military equipment sent to Ukraine include: several air defence systems, including Starstreak, designed to bring down low-flying aircraft at short range; M270 multiple-launch rocket systems with M31A1 precision munitions; next-generation light anti-tank weapons; armoured vehicles; electronic warfare equipment; self-propelled artillery guns; and hundreds of thousands of rounds of 155mm ammunition.