Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to the UK on Wednesday, sweeping in to London on the first stage of an unannounced diplomatic tour of European capitals with a powerful message for British lawmakers.
In only his second foreign trip since the Russian invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago, Zelensky gave a speech to the joint houses of the British parliament that deftly stroked the national ego at the same as making a direct plea for more heavy weaponry, including fighter jets.
“London has stood with Kyiv since day one,” he said. “Since the first seconds and minutes of the full-scale war. Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react.”
In a poignant but carefully crafted move, Zelensky handed the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, the helmet of a Ukrainian fighter pilot, signed with the message: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”
Zelensky’s message was directed firmly at Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and members of the Cabinet standing in front of him in the historic surroundings of Westminster Hall – the oldest part of of the Palace of Westminster, where the late Queen Elizabeth lay in state and where US President Obama stood for a similar address in 2011.
He thanked the British leader – “Rishi” – who had earlier announced that the UK would begin training Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets. He also name-checked former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an early and steadfast supporter. “Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely, absolutely impossible,” Zelensky said. “Thank you.” Then, addressing the wider audience, he said: “You, all of you, you all showed your grit and character back then. Strong British character.”
Zelensky touched down in Britain a time when Kyiv is urging the West to send more weapons and military support to counter Russian advances. He later traveled Paris on Wednesday evening local time, where he was greeted at the Elysee Palace by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
During a joint press conference, Zelensky said he was “thankful for the spontaneous idea for us to meet and talk” adding that “France and Germany have the potential to be game changers… the sooner Ukraine manages to get long range weapons and modern planes, the stronger our coalitions will be.”
Surprise London arrival
Sunak greeted Zelensky at Stansted Airport, north of London, after he landed aboard a UK Royal Air Force C-17 transport plane. Sunak tweeted a picture of the pair embracing on the runway. “Welcome to the UK, President @ZelenskyyUa,” reads the caption, adding the hashtag #GlorytoUkraine.
Later, he traveled to Buckingham Palace to meet King Charles III, who told Zelensky: “We’ve all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long, I can’t tell you.”
Zelensky said in a Telegram post following his audience with the King that he congratulated King Charles “on his recent accession to the throne and wished peace and prosperity to the British people.”
“It is an honor for me to be the first President of Ukraine in the history of Ukrainian-British relations to be honored by the British monarch with an audience,” he added.
“I am grateful to His Majesty for the warm welcome and for supporting Ukrainian citizens who have taken refuge from the war in the United Kingdom,” Zelensky said.
Zelensky also met with Ukrainian troops being trained by British forces on Wednesday, telling a press conference that his battlefield priority is for Ukraine to obtain more weapons.
“We have no way out. We have to stand firm. We need armored vehicles, we need tanks, we need fighter jets, and obviously, we spent a lot of time talking about this together,” said Zelensky, speaking alongside Sunak at Lulworth Camp in Dorset, England.
In his speech to Parliament, Zelensky made the case for Russia’s defeat. “We know Russia will lose. We know victory will change the world, and this will be a change the world needed. The United Kingdom is marching with us towards the most important victory of our lifetime. The victory over the very idea of war.”
“After we win, any aggressor, it doesn’t matter, big or small, will know what awaits him if he attacks international order,” he continued.
Handing Speaker Hoyle the helmet, Zelensky said it belonged to “a real Ukrainian pilot” who was “one of our most successful aces. “The writing on the helmet reads, ‘We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.’”
“I trust this symbol will help us for our next coalition, coalition of the planes. And I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words: Combat aircraft for Ukraine. Wings for freedom.”
Zelensky’s visit to London is only his second outside his country since Russia invaded Ukraine almost a year ago, following his visit to Washington DC in December. The trip comes as Zelensky has been desperately seeking military aid from Western allies as Ukrainian officials warn Moscow is gearing up for a spring offensive.
Britain announced Wednesday it would send more military equipment to Kyiv to help counter a possible Russian spring offensive. Sunak said the UK would expand training to Ukrainian fighter pilots and marines, while also promising a long-term investment in Ukraine’s military.
Training for Ukrainian pilots
The UK will begin training Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets, in what CNN understands would be the first official training program for Ukrainian pilots on Western fighter aircraft. There was however no mention of providing Ukraine with Western fighter aircraft that Zelensky has been calling for.
Kyiv will likely welcome the news that the UK’s training program is expanding to fighter jets, with Ukrainian officials having long called for Western allies to supply the planes.
The UK is “actively” considering whether to send British jets to Ukraine, Sunak’s official spokesman said on Wednesday, according to PA Media.
During a joint press conference with Sunak Wednesday, Zelensky said Ukraine would be “intensifying our diplomacy” surrounding the request for Eurofighter Typhoon jets and suggested that the decision was not solely in the UK’s hands.
“Once again, I heard from Mr. Prime Minister the desire to provide fighter jets, and officially he declared they can begin training our pilots,” Zelensky said. “When it comes to Typhoons, not everything depends just on the decision of Great Britain.”
Zelensky also emphasized the need to have these diplomatic conversations regarding fighter jets “quickly.”
Sunak noted that it takes three years to train a Typhoon fighter pilot from scratch, to which Zelensky responded, “I didn’t even know it takes three years to train a pilot like that. You know, come on, we will be sending you pilots who have already trained for two and a half years.”
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is investigating which aircraft could be given to Ukraine, but Downing Street maintained no decision has yet been taken on whether to supply the jets.
“I think you can see from the steps that we are taking that we are willing to put Ukraine in the position where, once we have reached the goals of training pilots, they are able to fly these type of jets,” said the PM’s spokesman. “What we have not made a decision on is whether we send UK fighter jets. Obviously there is an ongoing discussion among other countries about their own fighter jets, some of which are more akin to what Ukrainian pilots are used to.”
The UK has so far refused to send its Typhoon or F-35 fighter jets to Ukraine, saying it was not “the right approach.” However, Wednesday’s announcement will raise hopes that there could be a future shift in attitude. The UK also said it will provide Ukraine with “longer-range capabilities,” Downing Street said, without going into details.
The Russian embassy in London described the trip as a “hasty event,” “theatrical performance,” and a “fundraising event,” mocking Zelensky as an “ex-comedian in a green sweatshirt,” in a statement to CNN.
In response to the UK saying it’s “actively looking” at whether to send fighters jets to Ukraine, the embassy warned that “Russia will know how to respond to any unfriendly actions by the British side.”
“We would like to remind London: in the event of such a scenario the death toll of yet another round of escalation, as well as and its military-political consequences for the European continent and the whole world will be on the United Kingdom’s hands,” the embassy said.
NATO allies recently answered Kyiv’s calls for main battle tanks to bolster its military – which has until now been relying on Soviet-era tanks.
The UK was the first to announce in mid-January that it would send 12 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. After weeks of pressure, this was followed by announcements from Germany and the US that they would send Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams tanks respectively.
During Zelensky’s visit, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced more sanctions against the “Russian military and Kremlin elites.”
The UK package targets six entities providing military equipment such as drones, as well as eight individuals and one entity connected to “nefarious financial networks that help maintain wealth and power amongst Kremlin elites,” a government statement read.
The UK government has already imposed sanctions on hundreds of Russian individuals and entities since last February when Russia invaded Ukraine, according to UK government data.