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Zelensky needs Sunak to push Ukraine’s allies to go further and faster over weapons and jets

Britain’s willingness to step first unto the breach over military support has spurred wider Western action, writes Kim Sengupta. The Ukrainian president needs that now more than ever

Monday 15 May 2023 20:03 BST
Rishi Sunak, right, meeting Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky at Chequers
Rishi Sunak, right, meeting Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky at Chequers (PA)

To celebrate the coronation of King Charles, the Ukrainian defence ministry issued a version of the song “London Calling” by The Clash.

The accompanying video, a typically sleek Kyiv production, included images of Charles, Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer meeting Volodymyr Zelensky, and of the weapons Britain has sent to Kyiv, including Challenger 2 tanks. It ended with the question: “Wonder what our British friends will send us next?” A clip of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth followed, with the caption “(Only joking)”.

The UK has been the second-largest provider of military assistance to Ukraine behind the United States, offering £30bn worth of equipment. It was also among the earliest of the allies to start training and arming the country’s forces, after the overthrow of the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych in 2013 and the subsequent Russian-backed separatist war in the east.

When the Ukrainians say that President Zelensky’s visit to Britain as part of his current European tour has very special meaning, it is not just PR rhetoric. There is a deep underlying gratitude for the solidarity shown to their nation in its darkest hour.

Those of us reporting from the ground saw the effectiveness of the British-supplied next-generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAWs) as Russian forces sought to storm Kyiv in the early days of the invasion. We similarly witnessed British and American artillery turn the tide of battle in the Donbas last summer. And now the UK is the first ally to send long-range Storm Shadow missiles, as well as hundreds of attack drones, as Ukraine launches its long-planned counteroffensive against Russia.

Britain’s willingness to step first unto the breach in its significant contributions to Ukraine’s defence effort has spurred wider Western support.

The supply of the Storm Shadow missiles, with their 155-mile range, may persuade the Biden administration to send the long-range MGM-140 army tactical missile system (ATACMS) – unless Kyiv breaches its agreement with London to use Storm Shadow solely for attacks inside Ukrainian sovereign territory. The Challenger 2s will not be the main battle tanks for Ukraine, although they have been allocated to one of the best armed brigades being deployed. That role will be filled by German Leopards, because of their prevalence among Nato armies, meaning there is an established supply chain. It was, however, the initial British tank offer that, to a large extent, unlocked the supply of Leopards by other partners.

The UK has offered to train Ukrainian pilots to use modern fast jets. Kyiv wants US-made F-16s – the aircraft equivalent of Leopards thanks to their prevalence among Nato forces – saying they are necessary for carrying out the combined air and ground operations that will be needed for the coming counteroffensive.

Washington remains unwilling to provide F-16s, giving as one of its reasons that it will take up to 18 months to train pilots to fly the planes. Ukraine, supported by some Western military officers, insists that the training needed for its experienced air personnel would actually take no more than a few months.

The provision of advanced jets was discussed by Mr Sunak and Mr Zelensky during the visit. Afterwards, the Ukrainian president stressed that it was a “very important topic for us, because we can't control the sky”.

He continued: “We spoke about it, and I see that in the closest time you will hear some, I think, very important decisions, but we have to work a little bit more on it.”

Mr Sunak, while he said that providing fighter jets was “not a straightforward thing”, pledged that the UK would be “a key part of the coalition of countries that provides that support”. He added: “This is a crucial moment in Ukraine’s resistance to a terrible war of aggression they did not choose or provoke. They need the sustained support of the international community to defend against the barrage of unrelenting and indiscriminate attacks that have been their daily reality for over a year.”

Ukrainian military commanders, according to their counterparts in Britain and other Nato countries, are precise in detailing what they need from their allies. But it is Mr Zelensky, in his military fatigues, who has been the face of Ukraine since this war started, becoming one of the most recognised public figures in the world.

Mr Zelensky is the first foreign dignitary Mr Sunak has met as prime minister at Chequers. “This room that we are standing in, Winston Churchill made many of his famous speeches in World War Two from this room,” pointed out Mr Sunak. “Your leadership, your country’s bravery and fortitude are an inspiration to us all.”

This was not the first time the Churchill comparison had been made. Presenting Mr Zelensky with the Sir Winston Churchill Leadership Award last summer, Mr Johnson told him: “I can imagine [Churchill’s] spirit walking with you ... In that moment of supreme crisis, you faced a test of leadership that was, in its way, as severe as Churchill’s challenge in 1940.”

In a speech to parliament during his last visit to Britain in February, the Ukrainian president spoke of how moved he had been when he was taken to the Cabinet War Rooms, Churchill’s war headquarters, three years previously, and felt the special atmosphere of the place, knowing of the momentous decisions made there.

Mr Zelensky had already visited Italy, France and Germany in recent days, ahead of his visit to the UK and the meeting with Mr Sunak. In Germany he received the highly prestigious Charlemagne Prize for promoting European unity.

Chequers is a place of great resonance for such a meeting at such a time. Its walls echo with the history of war and peace. Neville Chamberlain went there for solitude as the Munich Agreement collapsed and the countdown to the Second World War began. Churchill was dining there with the American ambassador when the news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Chequers was also the place where a future of peace was celebrated at the end of the Cold War, with Margaret Thatcher welcoming Mikhail Gorbachev and John Major hosting Boris Yeltsin. The hopes that came with detente have faded in recent years, and ended with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr Zelenksy’s visit is an important part of shaping what happens next, at a crucial stage in the devastating war unfolding in the heart of Europe.

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