‘We have freedom,’ said Zelensky in his address to Westminster Hall. ‘Give us wings to protect it!’ This sums up the message of his visit to the UK: to thank Britain for the weapons, without which Ukraine would not have survived so far, but to ask for planes. The last time he was in London, he said, he left enjoying delicious English tea. ‘I will be leaving parliament today, thanking you in advance for powerful English planes’. His audience laughed – but Zelensky is certainly not joking.
Zelensky spoke about Ukrainian troops going ‘deep into occupied territory’ but he believes this cannot be done without bombers. Ukraine’s Soviet-era air force is not enough. For Zelensky, this is the next step. So far, the US and its Nato allies have drawn the line at sending jets. Early on in the war, Washington intervened to stop Poland proposing the deployment of aircraft to Kyiv. But the UK has led the world in Ukraine’s defence, sending arms before Russia invaded and training soldiers after the Crimea invasion. So it’s natural for Ukraine to hope that, if the West does send combat aircraft, Britain will be the first to make the argument. Hopefully this is before Putin launches the new offensive in Donbas.
Basic training for fighter pilots takes at least three months. Proper training takes years. So Ukraine needs help now and the news today is that the RAF has agreed to train Ukrainian pilots. A list of pilots who can learn to fly fighter jets was approved by the Ukrainian command in January; airfields are being modernised throughout the country in anticipation. So far Ukrainian pilots have been operating MiG-29 and SU-27 aircraft produced between 1981 and 1991 and fighting at the limit of their capabilities.