Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky left his home country on Wednesday for a rare trip abroad to pressure Europe to provide fighter jets to his forces in their fight against the Russian army.
Zelensky arrived in London on what has been his first trip to the UK since the start of Russia’s invasion a year ago, and only his second abroad in that time. The first trip, last December, was to meet with US President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington DC.
The Ukrainian leader first met with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and subsequently with King Charles at Buckingham Palace, whom he thanked for “supporting Ukrainian citizens who have taken refuge from the war in the United Kingdom.”
He also addressed the joint houses of the British Parliament.
Sunak announced earlier in the day that the UK will send more military equipment to Ukraine to counter an expected Russian spring offensive. He also announced the UK will begin training Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets, would expand training to Ukrainian fighter pilots and marines, and promised a long-term investment in Kyiv’s military.
“London has stood with Kyiv since Day One,” Zelensky told the British lawmakers. “Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react.” He also thanked former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saying the former leader “got others united when it seemed absolutely, absolutely impossible. Thank you.”
He also presented Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the helmet of a Ukrainian fighter pilot signed with the inscription: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”
Zelensky then added, “I trust this symbol will help us for our next coalition, coalition of the planes. And I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words: combat aircraft for Ukraine. Wings for freedom.”
The visit is the first stop on an unannounced tour of European capitals that is reportedly intended to include Paris and Brussels, the seat of the European Union Parliament.
Zelensky was expected to arrive in Paris on Wednesday night, where he is slated to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, according to a statement by the Elysee Palace quoted by CNN.
If all goes as planned, the Ukrainian president will head to Brussels on Thursday to meet with EU leaders in a long-planned summit of the European Council.
It is also expected that Zelensky will deliver a speech at a special seating of the European Parliament, during which he is likely to focus on three key issues: EU membership, military hardware (including fighter jets and long-range missiles), and sanctions against Russia.