LONDON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pushed for fighter jets to ensure his country’s victory over Russia in a dramatic speech before the U.K. Parliament, where he also thanked the British people for their support since “Day One” of Moscow’s invasion.
The embattled leader’s surprise visit to Britain in a bid for more advanced weapons comes as Ukraine braces for an expected Russian offensive and hatches its own plans to retake land held by Moscow’s forces. Western support has been key to Kyiv’s surprisingly stiff defense, and the two sides are engaged in grinding battles.
It was only Zelenskyy’s second foreign trip since Russia invaded on Feb, 24, 2022, after a December visit to Washington. French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said he would host Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris later in the day, and expectations were growing that he might meet European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday.
Before that, Sunak and Zelenskyy flew by helicopter to a British army base in southwest England to meet Ukrainian troops being trained on the Challenger 2 tanks that the U.K. is sending as part of the hundreds that Kyiv says it needs.
Hundreds of lawmakers and parliamentary staff packed the 900-year-old Westminster Hall, the oldest — and, on a cold winter day, unheated — part of Parliament for Zelenskyy’s speech.
Zelenskyy, wearing his trademark olive drab sweatshirt, urged allies to send his country jets, saying combat aircraft would be “wings for freedom.”
In a pointed and dramatic gesture, Zelenskyy presented the speaker of the House of Commons with a Ukrainian air force helmet, inscribed by a Ukrainian pilot: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”
The president is trying to soften allies’ reluctance to send advanced fighter jets, both because they are complex to fly and for fear of escalating the war.
The U.K. has repeatedly said it’s not practical to provide the Ukrainian military with British warplanes. But in a shift, the government said Wednesday it was “actively looking” at whether Ukraine could be sent Western jets, and was “in discussion with our allies” about it.
Britain announced it would train Ukrainian pilots in Britain on “NATO-standard fighter jets” within weeks.
Sunak spokesman Max Blain said the government was exploring “what jets we may be able to give” over the coming years, but had not made a decision on whether to send its F-35 or Typhoons.
“We think it is right to provide both short-term equipment … that can help win the war now, but also look to the medium to long term to make sure Ukraine has every possible capacity it requires,” he said.
Ukraine has sought fighter jets from its allies since early in the war to bolster its force of Soviet-made MiG-29 and Su fighters. The success of its air force in continuing to defend its skies and territory fly despite Russia’s much bigger numbers helped push back Moscow’s initial assault.
Macron has said France hasn’t ruled out sending fighter jets but set conditions before such a step is taken, including not leading to an escalation of tensions or using the aircraft “to touch Russian soil,” and not resulting in weakening “the capacities of the French army.”
Zelenskyy also went to Buckingham Palace, where he met with King Charles III, who greeted him with a broad smile and a warm handshake before they held a meeting over tea. The king told the president that “we’ve all been worried about you and thinking about your country for so long.”
In his Parliament speech, Zelenskyy noted that Charles was a qualified military pilot.
“The king is an air force pilot,” Zekenskyy said, and “in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”
Zelenskyy was greeted with applause, cheers and cries of “Slava Ukraini” — “Glory to Ukraine” — as he arrived in Parliament, where his cause has wide support from both the Conservative government and opposition parties.
He had addressed the U.K. Parliament remotel y in March, two weeks after the start of the invasion. He echoed World War II leader Winston Churchill’s famous “never surrender” speech, vowing that Ukrainians “will fight till the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.”
On Wednesday, he recalled how on a prewar visit to London, he sat on Churchill’s chair in his subterranean wartime headquarters, and had a feeling that he only now understood.
“It was the feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory,” Zelenskyy said.
In past wars, “evil lost,” Zekenskyy told U.K. lawmakers. “We know Russia will lose and we we know victory will change the world.”
The U.K. has sent Ukraine more than 2 billion pounds ($2.5 billion) in weapons and equipment, and Zelenskyy thanked Sunak and his predecessor Boris Johnson for their staunch backing. Sunak took office in October and has pledged to maintain the U.K.’s support.
“Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible,” Zelenskyy said.
He also urged stronger sanctions against Moscow until “Russia is deprived of any possibility to finance this war.”
Zelenskyy thanked Britons for their bravery, adding: “London has stood with Kyiv since Day One.”
The Ukrainian leader arrived on a Royal Air Force plane in London, and Sunak greeted him on the tarmac, tweeting a photo of them embracing. They held talks at the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. residence before Zelenskyy’s speech.
Sunak and Zelenskyy also are due to visit Ukrainian troops being trained on the Challenger 2 tanks that Britain is sending as part of the hundreds that Kyiv says it needs. More than 10,000 Ukrainian troops have also been trained at bases in the U.K., and Britain says it will train 20,000 more in 2023.
“I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future,” Sunak said.
Coinciding with the visit, the U.K. government announced a new round of sanctions against six entities that Britain said supplied equipment to the Russian military. CST, a manufacturer of Russian drones and parts for helicopters used against Ukraine, were among those sanctioned.
There were rising expectations that Zelenskyy might visit Brussels, where leaders from the 27-nation bloc are holding a summit Thursday. The EU’s legislature has also slated a special plenary session that day.
The London visit came as Russian forces shelled areas of eastern Ukraine in what Kyiv authorities believe is part of a thrust by the Kremlin’s forces before the invasion anniversary. Moscow, meanwhile, believes Ukraine is preparing its own battlefield push.