British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak marked President Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s surprise visit to Britain on Wednesday with a pledge that Britain would soon begin training Ukrainian pilots to fly NATO-standard jet fighters. The announcement was the clearest sign yet that Britain and its NATO allies are seriously considering supplying the combat aircraft that Kyiv has long lobbied for in its battle to repel invading Russian forces.
Kyiv has repeatedly asked its allies for fighters to bolster its military as it prepares for an escalation in fighting in the disputed parts of eastern and southern Ukraine in the coming weeks.
President Biden has balked at the request for American fighter jets as too provocative and a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday there was no change in the U.S. stance. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the Defense Department would consult with Ukraine and allies such as Britain to determine the country’s most urgent security needs.
“We’re going to work very hard with our allies and partners to provide them with that capability so they can be successful,” Gen. Ryder told Pentagon reporters.
But Mr. Sunak said all options to aid Kyiv were under discussion, despite concerns against drawing NATO and the West into a direct conflict with Moscow. Mr. Zelenskyy’s lightning visit included an audience with King Charles III and an address to lawmakers in the House of Commons.
“Nothing is off the table,” Mr. Sunak said during a joint press conference at a British military base in southwest England. “We must arm Ukraine in the short term, but we must bolster Ukraine for the long term.”
U.S. officials have publicly played down the possibility that American-made jet fighters will take part in Ukraine’s battle to evict Russia, but Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Col. Yuri Ignat told ArmyInform, a Ukrainian military publication, that some of their military pilots have already been in the U.S. for training since the war broke out.
“The type of aircraft which is likely to be provided to Ukraine and the corresponding terms of training [of personnel] have already been determined,” Col. Ignat said. “Every effort is being made to make our dream of switching to this plan come true as soon as possible.”
Before heading off to Paris for talks with French and German leaders later Wednesday, Mr. Zelenskyy told a rare joint session of Parliament that Russia will lose the war.
“The United Kingdom is marching with us toward the most important victory of our lifetime. It will be a victory over the very idea of the war,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, speaking in English as he did in his December address to a joint session of Congress in Washington. “After we win together, any aggressor — it doesn’t matter whether big or small — will know what awaits him if he attacks the international order.”
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warmly greeted Mr. Zelenskyy in Paris and Mr. Scholz said the Ukrainian president will attend a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday.
“Ukraine can count on France, its European partners and allies to win the war. Russia cannot and must not win,” Mr. Macron said before their working dinner, according to The Associated Press.
Mr. Macron has said Paris hasn’t ruled out sending fighter jets but was not seeking an escalation of tensions or the use the aircraft “to touch Russian soil.”
The visits to London and Paris — only the second time the Ukrainian president has left his country since the fighting began in February 2022 — came as Russian forces continued shelling areas in eastern Ukraine ahead of an expected offensive that officials believe will be timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the invasion Feb. 24.
British military officials said there are clear signs Russia is attempting to restart major offensive operations in Ukraine, after a year of fighting in which none of the Kremlin’s major objectives have been secured on the ground. The Kremlin’s operational goal is “almost certainly” to capture the remaining Ukrainian-held sections of Donetsk, but Russian forces so far have only been able to gain a few hundred yards of territory in a week.
“This is almost certainly because Russia now lacks the munitions and maneuver units required for successful offensives,” British military officials tweeted. “… It remains unlikely that Russia can build up the forces needed to substantially affect the outcome of the war within the coming weeks.”
— This article was based in part on wire service reports.