LONDON — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine pleaded with Britain on Wednesday to supply his country with fighter jets, making his dramatic appeal during a surprise visit to London that began a two-day diplomatic blitz of Ukraine’s Western allies.
Expressing thanks for Britain’s robust and early military support, Mr. Zelensky nevertheless warned that warplanes were now urgently needed to thwart a fresh Russian offensive that is already mobilizing in Ukraine’s east.
So far, the British government has resisted Ukraine’s request, as has the United States and other NATO countries, fearing that combat aircraft could escalate confrontation with Russia. But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that Britain would train Ukrainian pilots to fly NATO-standard jets, and signaled he was open to eventually sending planes.
“When it comes to fighter combat aircraft, of course they are part of the conversation,” Mr. Sunak said in a news conference alongside Mr. Zelensky, at a military base in southern England. “Nothing is off the table.”
From London, Mr. Zelensky flew to Paris, where he pressed his case for heavier weapons in an evening meeting with President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany at the Élysée Palace.
“The sooner Ukraine gets long-range heavy weaponry, the sooner our pilots get planes, the sooner this Russian aggression will end and we can return to peace in Europe,” Mr. Zelensky said, standing alongside both leaders.
On Thursday, he is expected to appear in Brussels for meetings with European Union leaders. All told, it is a confident, if plaintive tour, by a leader whose country remains under lethal daily bombardment by Russian artillery.
Mr. Macron echoed Mr. Sunak’s pledge of support, though with no reference to planes. “It will be necessary for us to pursue, to adapt and to modulate the military support that is necessary to preserve Ukraine and its future,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky’s goal of securing fighter jets still faces formidable hurdles, but that didn’t stop him from making a full-throated entreaty.
The State of the War
- Zelensky’s U.K. Trip: President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine made a surprise visit to London, during which he met with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain and addressed the country’s Parliament.
- A New Offensive: As the war intensifies in Eastern Ukraine, doctors struggle to handle an influx of injuries and soldiers fret over the prospect of new waves of conscripts arriving from Russia.
- A Bloody Price: In its new push in the east, Russia is relying on masses of troops to overrun Ukrainian positions. The strategy has come at a cost of hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers each day.
- Leadership Shake-Up: President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political party will replace Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. The expected move comes amid a widening corruption scandal, although Mr. Reznikov was not implicated in wrongdoing.
“I appeal to you and the world with these most simple and yet important words,” Mr. Zelensky said to a joint session of Parliament under the ancient, timbered ceiling of Westminster Hall. “Combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom.”
Mr. Zelensky received a hero’s welcome in London on a day laden with symbolism. At the airport, he was welcomed with a hug by Mr. Sunak, who then conferred with him at 10 Downing Street. After his address to Parliament, Mr. Zelensky had an audience with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace, before flying with Mr. Sunak to the base in Dorset, in southern England, to meet Ukrainian troops undergoing training.
Mr. Zelensky’s decision to make London the first stop of his trip, only his second outside Ukraine since Russia invaded last year, attested to Britain’s role as one of the largest suppliers of weapons to Ukraine, and to the steadfast public support of Mr. Sunak and his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
Still, training pilots to fly high-tech planes is more time-consuming and difficult than training soldiers to drive tanks. Britain’s likeliest jet for export to Ukraine, the Eurofighter Typhoon, is complicated to operate and maintain, military analysts said.
It’s also not clear that Britain has enough planes to make a difference; there are only about 30 of the older generation of the Typhoon jets that could be made available, according to Janes, a defense intelligence firm.
Even the role of manned aircraft in this war has been constrained, given the widespread use of missiles and drones, and the effectiveness of Ukraine’s and Russia’s air-defense systems. For all their symbolic value, analysts said fighter jets might make less of a difference on the battlefield than tanks.
“At some point, you need to ask what Ukraine is going to use them for,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “You don’t want highly sophisticated planes sitting on Ukrainian runways, where they can be targeted by the Russians.”
By signaling its openness to sending fighter planes, however, Britain could play the same catalyzing role it did in the debate over supplying tanks. Britain’s decision last month to send Ukraine 14 Challenger 2 battle tanks, as well as artillery and ammunition, helped prod a reluctant Germany and the United States to send battle tanks of their own.
Mr. Zelensky, whose visit was announced by Downing Street barely two hours before his Royal Air Force plane landed, arrived in London with a full agenda. He wanted to thank British leaders, past and present, for being among the first to ship weapons. And then he wanted to present his shopping list.
“London has stood with Kyiv from Day 1,” Mr. Zelensky said to thunderous applause from lawmakers standing in Westminster Hall. “I will be leaving today thanking you for powerful English planes,” he added to scattered laughter.
In a dramatic gesture that doubled as a sales pitch, Mr. Zelensky presented the speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, with the helmet that the president said belonged to one of the ace fighter pilots in Ukraine’s air force. A message was scrawled on it: “We have freedom; give us wings to protect it.”
While there are significant qualms inside the British government about sending combat jets, there are also important reservoirs of support. Mr. Johnson, who visited Kyiv several times and cultivated a friendship with Mr. Zelensky, renewed his call for Britain and other Western allies to grant Ukraine’s request.
“Your powerful and passionate appeal must be heard,” Mr. Johnson wrote on Twitter after attending Mr. Zelensky’s speech. “There is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by sending planes now.”
Mr. Zelensky returned the warmth. During the speech, he singled out Mr. Johnson, saying, “Boris, you got others to act.”
At several key moments before and during the nearly yearlong war, Britain has thrust itself into the vanguard of Western military support for Ukraine. Early in the conflict, Mr. Zelensky said, shipments of British antitank missiles enabled Ukrainian troops to halt the advance of the Russian Army.
Britain has trained 10,000 Ukrainian troops, including soldiers who arrived last week to learn how to operate the Challenger tanks. In addition to pilots, Britain said it would begin to train Ukrainian marines.
In his news conference with Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Sunak said their talks focused on more short-term combat needs like tanks and long-range missiles. He took credit for Britain’s decision to provide tanks, saying it had goaded others to act.
The two leaders are an odd pair: Mr. Zelensky is a charismatic former actor and comedian, Mr. Sunak a button-down former investment banker. But Mr. Sunak has maintained the staunch support for Ukraine that began under Mr. Johnson.
Britain’s hawkish response reflects both its vexed history with Russia, which it blamed for poisoning a Russian agent on British soil, as well as a self-conscious effort by Mr. Johnson to drape himself in the mantle of his hero, Winston Churchill.
But the war has also forced Britain to confront its cozy, sometimes corrupt, ties with Russian oligarchs, many of whom have used London to shelter and launder their assets. Britain has blacklisted dozens of oligarchs, though critics say it has not done nearly enough.
On Wednesday, the British government announced a raft of new sanctions targeting the Russian military and loyalists of President Vladimir V. Putin, with the aim of “undermining his war machine to help Ukraine prevail,” the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said in a statement.
The list includes several companies that support Russian military operations, including CST, a drone manufacturer, as well as businesses that supply military parts and software involved in military aviation. Five individuals were also targeted for their apparent ties to Mr. Putin’s residences.
Mr. Zelensky’s emotional address followed the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions, a normally rough-and-tumble session in which Mr. Sunak and the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, go toe to toe. Rather than a partisan cage match, however, this session was mostly a display of unity in support of Ukraine.
Demonstrating that bipartisanship, Mr. Starmer encouraged the government to continue its military support, called for Mr. Putin to be prosecuted for war crimes in The Hague and proposed that the British government use frozen Russian assets as funds to reconstruct Ukraine after the war.
In speaking in Westminster Hall, Mr. Zelensky joined an extremely select group of foreign dignitaries, including President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela, the former South African leader.
The hall, in the shadow of Big Ben, is one of the most hallowed places in British public life. Erected by King William II in 1097, it is where King Richard I had his coronation banquet in 1189 and Thomas More was tried for treason in 1535. It was last used for the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II after her death in September.
Reporting was contributed by Aurelien Breeden in Paris, Megan Specia in London and Stephen Castle in Lulworth Camp, Dorset, England