Zelensky visit highlights Britain’s leading role in supporting Ukraine

The visit came as UK training of Ukrainian forces is set to be expanded to cover fighter jet pilots and marines

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Zelensky visit highlights Britain’s leading role in supporting Ukraine

If Boris Johnson’s premiership has an enduring legacy, it is the unstinting support he has given to Ukraine in its war with Russia — a fact that was much in evidence when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made London his first port of call during his tour of European capitals.

The primary purpose of Zelensky’s Europe visit was to lobby European leaders to provide Ukraine with much-needed warplanes to shore up Kyiv’s ability to defend itself against another major Russian offensive, which military experts predict will take place in the coming weeks.

But by making Britain the first destination on his European itinerary, Zelensky was signalling the lead role the UK has played in making sure its European allies remain steadfast in the support for the Ukrainian cause.

It was a role, moreover, that was forged under Johnson’s premiership, a fact that was very much in evidence as the Ukrainian leader enjoyed all the attributes of a state visit.

Red carpet reception

After receiving a red carpet reception from British prime minister at Downing Street, the Ukrainian leader then travelled to Buckingham Palace for an audience with King Charles before delivering a speech to both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall.

AFP
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) shakes hands with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after arriving at 10 Downing Street in central London on February 8, 2023.

But while it was Sunak who posed for the official photographs with the president, Johnson’s pivotal role in forging such close ties between London and Kyiv was evident when Zelensky made a point of name-dropping the former premier in his speech for the support he showed as Russia launched its invasion.

“London has stood with Kyiv since day one, from the first seconds and minutes of the full-scale war,” said Zelensky.

“Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react. Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible. Thank you.”

London has stood with Kyiv since day one, from 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. Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible. Thank you.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

The visit came as UK training of Ukrainian forces is set to be expanded to cover fighter jet pilots and marines and, as the UK has also announced, a fresh round of sanctions targeting Russia, including IT companies as well as manufacturers of military equipment such as drones and helicopter parts. 

Plans have also been announced to train Ukrainian pilots to fly Nato-standard fighter jets in the future, a key request from Ukraine.

Diplomatic red faces

Zelensky's decision to visit Britain first certainly caused diplomatic red faces in Brussels, where officials had been insistent that the Ukrainian president would choose the EU for his second overseas visit after the US, which he visited at the end of last year.

Instead, Mr Zelensky picked the UK, underlining the importance of its role since the invasion a year ago. 
When journalists in Paris asked President Emmanuel Macron's officials if it was a diplomatic coup for Britain, they were told: "It's a very good thing that he is going to the UK," before adding that the French President had spoken to Zelensky just last week. 

"We have also just welcomed Ukraine's defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, to talk about our support in terms of equipment for Ukraine. So, all that is positive."

Zelensky did go on to address the gathered leaders of the remaining 27 EU member states at a summit in Brussels, the third European capital he visited, having first flown to Paris at the conclusion of his London trip.

After the divisions created by Brexit, both domestically and in Europe, the chaos of three Prime Ministers resigning in short order, and huge upheaval in the economy, Zelensky's visit created a heartening opportunity for the UK to be seen in the ascendent in world affairs and proof that Brexit has not relegated it to world affairs side-lines as so may predicted.

The rapture with which Zelensky was greeted in Westminster Hall by politicians from all parties was entirely genuine, as well as being a personal triumph for Johnson, whose own political ambitions are far from finished. 

The rapture with which Zelensky was greeted in Westminster Hall by politicians from all parties was entirely genuine, as well as being a personal triumph for Johnson, whose own political ambitions are far from finished. 

Johnson indicated as much when he appeared to criticise Sunak for not immediately agreeing to Zelensky's request for Europe to support the Ukrainian military with modern warplanes.

Another reason that Zelensky chose Britain as his first European destination is that the Sunak government played a key role in helping to persuade both the US and Europe to send battle tanks to Ukraine.

Having won the argument over tanks, Zelensky now wants Western allies to provide warplanes, a move that represents a significant increase in Kyiv's military demands, one that could prove a great more difficult to achieve that requesting tanks.

Key obstacle

A key obstacle to sending Western warplanes to Ukraine is that it takes a significant period of time to train pilots to fly them: it takes, for example, on average three years to train a Royal Air Force fighter pilot to fly a Typhoon Eurofighter.

And while Ukrainian fighter pilots have demonstrated immense skill defending their country against Russian aggression, it could be some time before they were ready to take the controls of Western warplanes, be they Eurofighters or US F-16s.

Western leaders – including US President Joe Biden – are also concerned that sending their warplanes could lead to a serious escalation in the conflict if Putin decides Nato is becoming deeply too deeply involved in Ukraine and decides to expand his "special military operation" to include Nato member states.

The debate, therefore, about arming Ukraine with western warplanes is far more complex than the argument over sending tanks, one that even Johnson will struggle to resolve in Kyiv's favour.
 

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