Defence secretary Ben Wallace has been accused of “scolding” the Ukrainians after revealing that he told them Britain was not retail giant Amazon when presented with a list of weapons demands.
In a summit that has revealed cracks between Western leaders and Kyiv, Mr Wallace also said he had advised Ukraine that the international community wanted to see “gratitude” for its support in the war with Russia.
Asked about the row, Rishi Sunak distanced himself from the comments, saying the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had repeatedly expressed his gratitude. “I think everyone can see that’s how he feels,“ he said.
The prime minister said that people across Ukraine were “fighting for their lives and freedom every single day and paying a terrible price for it”, adding that he understood Mr Zelensky's “desire to do everything he can to protect his people”.
President Zelensky – told about Mr Wallace’s remarks about Amazon and wanting to see “gratitude” – fired back by saying he “didn’t know what [Mr Wallace] meant” and asked whether he “wants something special”.
“I believe we were always grateful to the United Kingdom,” Mr Zelensky told a press conference. “We were always grateful to prime ministers and to the minister for defence, because the people in the United Kingdom have always supportive – we are grateful for this.”
“I didn’t know what he meant and how else we should be grateful,” he added. “We could get up in the morning and express our gratitude personally to the minister … Maybe the minister wants something special, but I think we have wonderful relations [with the UK].”
Labour's shadow defence secretary John Healey said Ukrainians did not need “lectures” when they were “fighting for the future and the freedom of their country”.
“President Zelensky wants more military help yesterday, of course he does. What he doesn’t need is lectures on gratitude, especially when they overshadow a successful summit in which Nato is stronger and the support for Ukraine is greater,” he added.
And Lib Dem defence spokesperson Richard Foord said Ukrainian people were dying because of Russia’s invasion and were asking for “the equipment needed to protect their country”, adding: “It is ill-judged to scold them for this and demand that they show more ‘gratitude’.”
It came as Western leaders tried to smooth tensions with Ukraine after President Zelensky sensationally accused the alliance of “absurd” delays to the process of making his country a member on Tuesday.
In a move widely seen as a way to soften the blow over Nato, the G7 announced a new framework for Ukraine’s long-term security, marking the first time many of its members have agreed such an arrangement with another country.
The summit also held the first meeting of the Nato-Ukraine council, a new forum designed to deepen ties with the war-torn country.
For his part Mr Zelensky struck a more conciliatory note during a press conference with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.
Asked later by the press if the wrangling over accession would depress morale near the frontline, Mr Zelensky said a new Nato-Ukraine council would give Ukrainians the “spirit” needed.
In a tweet, he also expressed gratitude to the UK for its support, after a one-to-one meeting with Mr Sunak.
Earlier Mr Wallace insisted that it was a matter of “when, not if” Ukraine joins the group. He also argued that a clear pathway for membership had been set out - that after the war ends Ukraine will join if it continues to make progress on political reform.
But, in a briefing with journalists, the defence secretary added that he had advised the Ukrainians to show they were grateful for the support they have received during a bloody conflict which has now lasted more than 500 days.
“Whether we like it or not, people want to see gratitude,” he said. “You know, my counsel to the Ukrainians is sometimes, ‘Look, you are persuading countries to give up their own stocks and yes, your war is a noble war and we see it as you waging a war not just for yourselves but for our freedoms.”
"But sometimes you've got to persuade lawmakers on (Capitol) Hill in America, you’ve got to persuade doubting politicians in other countries that it’s worth it and it’s worthwhile and that they’re getting something for it. Whether you like it or not, that’s just the reality of it’.”
Allies had given huge amounts of supplies to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, he said. He added: “We are not Amazon… I told them that last year, when I drove 11 hours to be given a list” of demands for more weapons.
He also said the war against Russia was going better than people think and claimed that the Russians had left “Laurel and Hardy” in charge of the campaign.
He also predicted there would be “more British troops in Ukraine after this conflict than before”, as a result of the G7 agreement. Sources later made clear they would be there in a training capacity.
A joint declaration said it was designed to ensure a “sustainable force capable of defending Ukraine now and deterring Russian aggression in the future”.
This will be done through “the continued provision” of assistance and equipment on land, air and sea, developing Ukrainian industry, intelligence sharing, training and support for cyberdefence.
British sources said that the UK’s main contribution on air support would be training pilots. They did not rule out other countries coming forward with offers of F16s, but said the UK did not have any of the fighter jets Ukraine wants.
G7 countries will also seek to make the war as costly as possible for Russia, including through sanctions and export controls, as well as holding those who carry out war crimes responsible.
For its part, No 10 said that Mr Sunak “paid tribute to the courage and bravery of Ukraine’s armed forces” when he met Mr Zelensky. But both made clear the G7 arrangements were not a substitute for Nato membership.
On Tuesday Zelensky had raged at the military alliance, denouncing delays in the membership process as “absurd”.
A communique said Ukraine would only be invited to join “when allies agree and conditions are met”.
Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister Andriy Melnyk was also quoted complaining that Kyiv has been “given the runaround” since 2008 and needs to join “as soon as possible, not when hell freezes over”.
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