PM says ‘nothing off the table' when it comes to sending fighter jets to Ukraine
“Nothing is off the table” when it comes to the question of providing fighter jets to Ukraine, the Prime Minister has said.
Rishi Sunak, speaking during a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday, said sending warplanes was “part of the conversation” between the pair.
His comment came after Downing Street confirmed the Prime Minister had asked Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to investigate what jets the UK could potentially give to Ukraine in its struggle against invading Russian forces.
Even before Mr Zelensky stepped foot on British soil, No 10 had announced that the UK would start training Ukrainian air force pilots as part of a long-term strategy to safeguard Kyiv's future.
It represented a change in approach, with Downing Street previously arguing it would take too long to train pilots to fly Western fighter planes to have an impact on the war in eastern Europe.
The Prime Minister told reporters during a press briefing at a Dorset military base: “When it comes to fighter combat aircraft, of course they are part of the conversation — indeed, we have been discussing that today and have been previously.
“That's why we have announced today that we will be training Ukrainian air force on Nato-standard platforms, because the first step in being able to provide advanced aircrafts is to have soldiers or aviators who are capable of using them.
“That is a process that takes some time. We've started that process today, that's because we are keen to support the president and his country in delivering a victory.
“And nothing is off the table and our leadership on this issue is something we all collectively should be very proud of.”
Mr Sunak and Mr Zelensky both appeared to suggest that the training of pilots was not the only hurdle to supplying Kyiv with planes.
Mr Zelensky said that, when it came to being supplied with Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter planes, “not everything depends just on the decision of Great Britain”.
His comment followed a hint from Mr Sunak that international allies involved in producing the planes would need to have a say.
Mr Sunak said part of his talks with Mr Zelensky included looking at the “supply chain” involved with the UK's fighter jets, suggesting other countries might have to sign off on a British decision to supply them to Kyiv.
During the debate over sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, countries willing to provide them had to wait for Berlin's approval as they are supplied under a German licence.
The Prime Minister said some UK aircraft had been “done through joint treaty with multiple other countries”, adding: “We have other allies involved in the provision of those bits of equipment.”
Mr Zelensky, who travelled to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron after the press conference, said he would be speaking to other European leaders about the issue of supplying his air force.
Without jets, there was a risk of “stagnation” in the conflict with Russia, he warned.
Boris Johnson, who was prime minister at the outbreak of the conflict and a close ally of Mr Zelensky, urged the UK to give Ukraine the “tools to finish the job” of defeating the Kremlin's troops.
“The faster we do it, the bigger the saving in life,” he told LBC.
The Russian Embassy in London warned the UK against supplying warplanes, saying Britain would bear responsibility “for another twist of escalation and the ensuing military-political consequences for the European continent and the entire world”.
The joint press briefing brought a close to a momentous day in which Mr Zelensky addressed Parliament with an emotive speech, pleading for fighter planes.
Dressed in his trademark khaki green military fatigues, he told MPs and peers in Westminster Hall: “I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words: combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom.”
As he presented a Ukrainian fighter ace's helmet to Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, he said more planes were needed to defeat Vladimir Putin's forces.
During his impromptu trip, Mr Zelensky held talks with Mr Sunak in Downing Street and met the King at Buckingham Palace.
Earlier, to the audience gathered in Westminster, Mr Zelensky had referred to Charles's former military service in the RAF, saying: “The King is an air force pilot and in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”
He added: “We know freedom will win. We know Russia will lose.”
In the afternoon, Mr Zelensky travelled by helicopter to Dorset with the Prime Minister to meet Ukrainian armed forces being trained by Britain to use Challenger 2 tanks, taking time to present medals to some of his troops.
The two leaders signed a declaration of unity, stating how London and Kyiv were “confident, that together with our allies and partners, we will defeat Russia's illegal and unprovoked invasion”.
Wednesday's trip was only Mr Zelensky's second time travelling overseas since the Russian invasion, having held talks in the United States and Poland during a trip in December.
To mark the occasion, Mr Sunak announced the UK's intention to train Ukrainian fighter pilots.
It is part of a two-pronged strategy, offering military kit now to fend off a Russian spring offensive while also preparing Ukraine's forces for the longer term.
The current training is expected to allow Challenger 2 tanks to make a “difference on the battlefields” of Ukraine next month, according to the Prime Minister.
Mr Sunak has also offered longer-range firepower to help counter Russia's ability to strike at Ukraine's towns and energy facilities.