Volodymyr Zelenskyy demands ‘wings for freedom’ as UK pledges fighter pilot training

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for ‘Wings for Freedom’ as he stepped up his appeal for western allies to supply Ukraine with fighter jets, in an emotional speech in Britain’s parliament.

On the first stage of a European trip that will also include Paris and Brussels, the Ukrainian president thanked the UK for its role in cajoling other allies to provide more support for Kyiv’s almost year-long battle against Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“I appeal to you and the world: combat aircraft for Ukraine. Wings for freedom,” Zelenskyy said to applause and cheers from members of both the British Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, where only months ago Queen Elizabeth II lay in state.

As Zelenskyy flew into London on an RAF aircraft, Britain promised more aid for Ukraine — including fighter pilot training, as debate rages over how much further the west should go in arming Kyiv.

After visiting King Charles and Ukrainian troops being trained in the UK, Zelenskyy was due to travel to Paris, where he is set to meet President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He is due to attend an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.

In only his second foreign trip since the invasion on February 24 last year, Zelenskyy thanked the UK for its role in urging other allies to provide more support.

“Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react,” he said.

The UK is the first western ally to offer to train Ukrainian pilots on Nato-standard aircraft, a move that comes after it offered Challenger tanks last month ahead of the US and Germany.

“I am proud that today we will expand . . . training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine is militarily able to defend its interests well into the future,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who greeted Zelenskyy on his arrival at Stansted airport.

In his speech, the Ukrainian leader praised Sunak and Boris Johnson, the former UK prime minister, for their leadership.

But concern is mounting in the west that Ukraine has a narrow window to launch a counteroffensive in the spring, as Russia amasses forces, prompting allies to send heavier equipment such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and longer-range weapons.

One UK cabinet minister said after the address that “everyone will remember the phrase ‘wings for freedom’ and I don’t see how he isn’t going to end up getting what he wants on that.”

Ukrainian officials warn that parts and weaponry for dozens of Soviet-era jets that Kyiv operates are swiftly depleting and that the country risks losing its air force fleet.

So far, Nato countries have not acceded to Kyiv’s call for western aircraft, particularly American F-16s. While the jets would allow Ukraine to protect itself more effectively against Russian aerial attacks, many in the west remain concerned about the risk of escalation with a nuclear-armed state.

Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov, said Britain’s decision “sends a strong signal . . . to Ukraine’s other allies, that the time has come to break through one of the last remaining hurdles — providing Ukraine with modern fighter jets”.

Ukrainian officials have said the F-16s could intercept cruise missiles and attack drones that Russia has used to target Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and civilian objects, while providing support for ground forces.

The UK initially trains its fighter jet pilots on Hawk 2 planes during an “operational conversion schedule” that typically takes six months. British officials said that period could be shortened to three months for experienced Ukrainian pilots.

Analysts said the UK would probably train Ukrainian pilots in simulators on Nato standard procedures, cockpit information display, weapon programming formats and tactics. 

“The idea [is] that when Ukraine is provided with Nato fighter [jets] at some point, conversion training will take less time,” said Justin Bronk, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.

Ukraine’s air force spokesperson, Yuriy Ignat, said late last year that roughly 50 experienced Ukrainian pilots with English-language skills had been selected and were ready to begin training on western jets. Many of them trained with US forces during military exercises before the war.

The UK will also increase weapons supplies to Ukraine.

The UK’s Foreign Office on Wednesday announced further sanctions against Russia.

“The victory will change the world and this will be a change that the world has long needed,” Zelenskyy said in his speech to the UK parliament. “After we win together, any aggressor, it doesn’t matter big or small, will know what awaits him if he attacks the international order.”

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard

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