No 10 admits ‘escalatory’ risk in sending fighter jets to Ukraine after Russia threats

UK keeping eye on risk – as defence secretary Ben Wallace rules out sending planes in short term

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
,Kim Sengupta
Thursday 09 February 2023 19:26 GMT
Rishi Sunak says 'nothing off the table' when it comes to supporting Ukraine

Rishi Sunak’s government has admitted there is a potential risk of escalation as it considers sending fighter jets to Ukraine, Downing Street has said.

The prime minister said warplanes were now “part of the conversation” as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said that he had heard from several European leaders that they were ready to provide Kyiv with aircraft.

Mr Zelensky gave no further details about the pledges – that came at a EU summit in Brussels – but appeared optimistic about the prospect of jets being delivered, having spent the last couple of days on a mini European tour to bolster support. The Ukrainian leader asked for “powerful English planes” during a visit to the UK.

“Europe will be with us until our victory. I've heard it from a number of European leaders... about the readiness to give us the necessary weapons and support, including the aircraft,” Mr Zelensky told a news conference on Thursday afternoon.

Having been asked about some allies’ concerns that supplying jets could risk dragging Nato into the conflict, Mr Sunak’s spokesperson said: “We take these decisions carefully and we do it thoughtfully. We are aware of potential escalatory risks.” As for warnings from the Kremlin that sending jets would elicit a military response, the No 10 official stressed that “it continues to be Russia that is escalating”.

A senior Ukrainian official said that Kyiv was aware that acquiring air assets was going to take time, but the Nato governments were aware of the urgency and that Kyiv was “not disappointed” about how things stand.

“We have learned to have strategic patience. Everything happens stage by stage.” she said. “We have had to present our case every step of the way in getting the weapons after Putin invaded our country, we know how this works. We have got experienced pilots who have been in many air battles, know how to shoot down drones, and they will not have to start from the beginning.

“The Nato military who work with us know this, it is a question of convincing the politicians. We have pilot training and then we’ll have the aircraft to fly them,” she said. “ We know other help, surface-to-air, artillery and electronic warfare kit will come while we wait for the aircraft decision. We are not disappointed.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that any delivery of advanced Nato-standard fighter jets would only bring pain and suffering to Ukrainians and criticised countries in the alliance for taking a more “direct” role in the conflict.

“This is nothing more than the growing involvement of the United Kingdom, Germany and France in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” Mr Peskov said. “The line between indirect and direct involvement is gradually disappearing,” he added.

Forcing home the point about the threat from Russia, Mr Zelensky told European leaders that his country has intercepted plans by Russian secret services to destroy Moldova and that he had spoken to Moldovan president Maia Sandu about the alleged scheme.

“I have informed her that we have intercepted the plan of the destruction of Moldova by the Russian intelligence,” Mr Zelensky said. He added the documents showed “who, when and how” the plan would “break the democracy of Moldova and establish control over Moldova”, but he did not know whether Moscow ultimately ordered the plan to be carried out.

After Mr Zelensky’s comments, Moldova’s Intelligence and Security Service released a statement confirming it has received “respective information from our Ukrainian partners” and said it has also identified “subversive activities, aimed to undermine the Republic of Moldova, destabilize and violate public order”.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte told the BBC on Thursday that Nato allies had to make “absolutely sure” they were not risking “direct confrontation” with Moscow by giving planes to Ukraine.

It comes as defence secretary Ben Wallace said Britain will not be giving fighter jets to Ukraine in the short term – making clear any potential transfer would take months.

Mr Wallace, in Rome for talks, said there was no immediate prospect of British jets being offered to Kyiv. “This is not a simple case of towing an aircraft to the border,” Mr Wallace told the BBC.

He added: “Britain knows what Ukraine needs and is very happy to help in many ways trying to achieve the effect. Those same effects can be done, but potentially through a different way – and without taking months, which of course gifting fighter jets would take.”

Mr Wallace also dismissed Boris Johnson’s call for the UK to provide 100 Typhoon warplanes as “unrealistic” – pointing out that Typhoons are made in several different countries and an agreement of allies would be needed.

He also appeared to suggest that Ukraine’s air force pilots would only finish their UK training on using fighter jets “post-conflict”.

Mr Wallace told a press conference: “We’re going to start training to improve the resilience of Ukraine, probably post-conflict, which is no different from what we were doing in 2015 where Britain, Sweden, Canada, America were training the Ukrainians to form their defence.”

The defence secretary also said fighter jets were not “solely sovereign” – saying they were built as part of a consortium of the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Mr Wallace has been told by Mr Sunak to investigate which jets the UK could potentially give to Ukraine. Britain will also train Ukrainian pilots on fighter jets the UK has, while also instructing them on Nato tactics, No 10 has indicated.

The PM – who promised further support for Ukraine during the British leg of Mr Zelensky’s visit – said on Thursday the offer of pilot training was the “first step” which could lead to the eventual supply of fighter planes.

“We’re talking about further support, potentially with aircraft as well,” Mr Sunak said. “The important first step of that journey is to make sure that we provide the training for Ukrainian pilots to be able to use that very sophisticated equipment.”

Rishi Sunak and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in London on Wednesday

Senior military and security figures have raised doubts about the likelihood that British fighter jets will be sent – despite Mr Sunak saying nothing was “off the table”.

Former national security adviser Peter Ricketts said “it’s not going to work” because the RAF jets need very specialized ground crews and other support. Lord Ricketts suggested US F16 fighter planes would be a “better bet” because there are lots of them available in Europe.

Asked about Typhoon planes, Lord Ricketts told ITV’s Peston it would take “at least a year” to give them to Ukraine, adding: “You can’t just hand over the keys to an experienced pilot and they can fly the plane away.”

Former Nato secretary general Baron Robertson told LBC that a UK jet delivery looked “very unlikely”, suggesting it would be better to focus on “replenishing what we’ve sent to Ukraine”.

Former head of the British army General Lord Dannatt also raised doubts about how much the UK could provide, though he said it was possible to send RAF Typhoons.

“I am interested to see what the Ministry of Defence can offer. I mean, we don’t have a huge stock of modern fast jets to spare,” he told the i newspaper.

Zelensky with EU leaders on Thursday

Mr Zelensky has expressed his impatience at the idea of a long delay in sending jets, saying during his press conference with Mr Sunak on Wednesday: “Come on, we will be sending you pilots who’ve already trained for two and a half years.”

The UK will seek to train Ukrainian pilots “as quickly as humanly possible”, No 10 said on Thursday. The training could be speeded up as some pilots may have years of experience, “albeit in Soviet-era jets that are very different to our own”, the PM’s spokesperson said.

Mr Johnson, who was prime minister at the outbreak of the conflict and is a close ally of Mr Zelensky, urged the UK to give Ukraine the “tools to finish the job” of defeating the Kremlin’s troops. “The faster we do it, the bigger the saving in life.”

The Ukrainian president addressed the European parliament in Brussels on Thursday morning, ahead of the EU summit later in the day

“A Ukraine that is winning is going to be a member of the European Union,” Mr Zelensky said to applause, building his address around the common destiny Ukraine and the 27-nation bloc face in confronting Russia head-on.

Asks if he would have to wait for years for EU membership, Mr Zelensky said: “We need it this year. When I say this year, I mean this year – 2023.”

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