Volodymyr Zelensky had a gentle dig at Rishi Sunak tonight after the PM told a joint press conference it will take years to train Ukraine pilots for Nato fighter jets.
After touring a training base for troops in Dorset with Mr Zelensky on his first visit to the UK since the invasion, the PM said the West must ‘arm Ukraine in the short term’ and ‘bolster’ it in the long-term.
Pushed on providing jets, he said ‘nothing is off the table’ and stressed that Britain is now going to start preparing the Ukrainian air force.
But he cautioned that ‘first step’ will take ‘some time’. ‘Throughout this conflict we have been out in front,’ he said denying there was any ‘reticence’. He said it was important Ukraine pilots can ‘actually operate the aircraft that they will be using’.
For his part Mr Zelensky said the discussions had been ‘fruitful’ and voiced gratitude. But he said the war could ‘stagnate’ if jets are not forthcoming from the West. ‘Come on, we will be sending you pilots who’ve already trained for two and a half years,’ he joked.
The exchange came after Boris Johnson urged the UK to offer all its fighter jets and tanks to Ukraine, saying countering Russian aggression was the ‘best use’ for the UK’s 100 Typhoon jets and similar stocks of Challenger tanks.
Moscow has threatened a ‘response’ if the government does supply planes, with some Nato states concerned about provoking a direct clash.
Earlier, the Ukrainian President was given a rapturous reception when he gave a speech to MPs and Peers n Westminster Hall.
Watched by Rishi Sunak, and with Mr Johnson in the audience, Mr Zelensky insisted that more help will be needed to defeat the Russian aggressors. He presented Speaker Lindsay Hoyle with a helmet signed by one of Kyiv’s top pilots and appealed for the UK to supply ‘powerful’ aircraft – after Mr Sunak announced that Britain will train forces in how to fly them.
The message on the helmet read: ‘We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.’
Amid splits within Nato on how far to go in suppling air power, Mr Zelensky added: ‘Combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom.’
Mr Sunak told the press conference tonight that deploying the aircraft would require agreement with other allies and detailed logistical planning.
‘There is a supply chain around such sophisticated aircraft,’ he said.
‘Those are conversations that the president and I are having and making sure we understand all the supply chain needs that go alongside aircraft like that — making sure they can be used and used safely, kept safely. So we are having that conversation.
‘And it is also a conversation we are having with our allies because, particularly some of the aircraft we have, are done through joint treaty with multiple other countries — I think we have seen that with previous bits of kit that others have had to give.
‘For aircraft, that is something we are also involved in because, as I said, we have other allies involved in the provision of those bits of equipment.
‘And as the president said, he is on his way to Europe after this to pick up this conversation with our partners and allies over there.’
While the UK operates F-35 and Typhoon jets, the older F-16s widely used by other Nato states have been seen as a better option and easier to deploy on the current battlefield.
However, a UK decision to offer planes would be symbolically important and put pressure on other countries to follow suit.