Why Zelenskyy visited the U.K. nearly 1 year into Russia's war on Ukraine The Ukrainian president spoke to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Parliament, and made a plea for warplanes.

Why Zelenskyy visited the U.K. nearly 1 year into Russia's war on Ukraine

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Tonight Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is in Paris, the second stop in a European tour and a rare trip outside Ukraine. But he started the day in London, where he addressed British politicians in Westminster and thanked them for their support. And he made an impassioned plea for his country to be supplied with fighter jets. He told his audience, we have freedom; give us wings to protect it. Willem Marx reports from London.


LINDSAY HOYLE: Slava Ukraini. Mr. President, please.


WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: President Zelenskyy has often said Britain's one of his country's best allies and among the biggest supporters of the Ukrainian war effort. In his address to hundreds of U.K. legislators, he praised Great Britain's grit, as well as its role in rallying support for his military months ahead of Russia's invasion last year.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: You were among those very few who have helped before the large-scale invasion began, exactly as it will be necessary every time in the future to prevent aggression from happening. Your help was preventive.

MARX: Earlier Wednesday, Zelenskyy had met with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Thanks to Britain's own political turmoil, Sunak recently became the third Downing Street resident since the war began. But by maintaining consistent support for Kyiv, he already commands his Ukrainian counterpart's approval.


ZELENSKYY: Ukrainian soldiers are being trained in Britain, in particular to operate Challengers, your main battle tanks. It's a tank coalition in action. Thank you very much for this powerful, defensive step.

MARX: Sunak's government promised that training on Challenger tanks just last month, but today he went even further, offering combat pilot courses for Ukraine's air aces. Jamie Shea, a researcher at British think tank Chatham House, says this seemingly simple offer could signify something much more serious.

JAMIE SHEA: It sends an important political signal, first of all, to the Ukrainians that the whole notion of aircraft is not being ruled out - never say never. And secondly, it sends an important signal to the Russians that the Western partners of Ukraine have not yet reached the limits of the kinds of capabilities that they're willing to give Ukraine.

MARX: Russia responded to those apparent signals swiftly, saying any future delivery of fighter jets from Britain to Ukraine would have military and political consequences for all of Europe. Neil Melvin, the director of international security at the U.K.'s Royal United Services Institute, says such consequences may ultimately be part of the plan to help Ukraine transition from Soviet-era systems to newer NATO weaponry.

NEIL MELVIN: It's about the long-term security relationship of Ukraine to the trans-Atlantic community because this is about decades of relationships being built up around these kind of systems.

MARX: And as Zelenskyy visits Paris tonight to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, he may well make the argument for arming Ukraine even more aggressively, according to Camille Grand, NATO's former assistant secretary general for defence investment.

CAMILLE GRAND: As we realize that the Ukrainians are superbly defending themselves, it sort of makes sense to give them weaponry that requires lengthy training and to build up their ability to do so in the long run.

MARX: The implications, say Grand and others, is that this conflict could well continue for years to come, and better air combat capabilities may one day be necessary for it to end.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London.


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