Britain said it was looking into sending combat aircraft to Ukraine after Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for western fighter jets in an impassioned plea for “wings for freedom” in the UK parliament.
As Ukraine’s president began a European trip that will also take in Paris and Brussels, Downing Street said UK defence secretary Ben Wallace had been asked to examine “what jets we might be able to give” Ukraine, but it warned that this was a “medium- to long-term” solution.
An international debate is raging over how much further the west should go in arming Ukraine, and Zelenskyy thanked the UK for its role in cajoling other allies to provide more support.
During a hero’s welcome in the 11th century Westminster Hall, he said: “I appeal to you and the world: combat aircraft for Ukraine. Wings for freedom.”
Zelenskyy drew a parallel with Britain’s own defiance of the Nazis in the second world war: “Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react.”
His pleas prompted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to make his most positive remarks about potentially supplying jets to Ukraine.
“We’ve been very clear, and we’ve been clear for a long time, that when it comes to co-operation and military assistance to Ukraine, nothing is off the table,” Sunak said. “And that’s because we’re determined to ensure that Volodymyr and the people can be victorious against Russian aggression.”
Zelenskyy also visited King Charles and was due to travel to Paris to meet France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz. He is expected to attend an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Pressure is mounting on western countries to provide combat jets, and Boris Johnson, the former UK prime minister, said Sunak should do more to help Kyiv.
“It is time to give the Ukrainians the extra equipment they need to defeat Putin and to restore peace to Ukraine. That means longer-range missiles and artillery,” he said. “It means more tanks. It means planes.
“We have more than 100 Typhoon jets. We have more than 100 Challenger 2 tanks. The best single use for any of these items is to deploy them now for the protection of the Ukrainians.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Sunak announced that Britain would begin training Ukrainian pilots, and travelled with Zelenskyy to south-west England to see Ukrainian troops training with Challenger 2 tanks.
The UK tried to damp expectations that it might send Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Ukraine soon, saying they were “complex pieces of machinery” and that it could take several years to train a pilot to fly them.
But Zelenskyy appeared unconvinced. “I didn’t even know that it took three years to train a pilot like that,” he said in a joint news conference with Sunak. “We’ll be sending you pilots who’ve already trained for two and a half years, you know. Come on.”
Officials said it would take around six months to train already experienced pilots and engineers to fly and service the Typhoon jets. Allowing for logistics, that means they would be unlikely to be operational in Ukraine before early 2024.
The most likely candidate would be so-called Tranche 1 or first-generation Eurofighter Typhoons, two dozen of which are due to be retired from service by 2025.
One UK cabinet minister said: “Everyone will remember the phrase ‘wings for freedom’ and I don’t see how [Zelenskyy] isn’t going to end up getting what he wants on that.”
Russia’s embassy in London warned that supplying jets to Ukraine would have “military and political consequences for the European continent and the whole world”.
Concern is mounting that Ukraine’s window for a counteroffensive in the spring is narrow, as Russia amasses forces, prompting allies to send heavier equipment such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and longer-range weapons.
Asked about the British move, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington was constantly assessing Ukraine’s needs, along with allies and partners.
“What’s vital is not just a particular weapons system or piece of equipment, equally important is significant training . . . and the ability to maintain it.”
Ukrainian officials have said that the F-16s could intercept cruise missiles and attack drones that Russia uses to target infrastructure and civilian structures, while providing support for ground forces.
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 exercises before the war.
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 Westminster Hall. “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 in London, Leila Abboud in Paris, Christopher Miller in Kyiv, and Felicia Schwartz in Washington