Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pushed for fighter jets to ensure his country’s victory over Russia in a dramatic speech before the U.K. Parliament, where he also thanked the British people for their support since “Day One” of Moscow’s invasion.
The embattled leader’s surprise visit to Britain in a bid for more advanced weapons comes as Ukraine braces for an expected Russian offensive and hatches its own plans to retake land held by Moscow’s forces. Support from Western allies has been key to Ukraine surprisingly stiff defense, and the two sides are engaged in grinding battles.
It was only Zelenskyy’s second foreign trip since Russia invaded on Feb, 24, 2022, and he visited the U.S. in December. The French president’s office said he will host Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris later in the day.
Hundreds of lawmakers and parliamentary staff packed the 900-year-old Westminster Hall, the oldest — and, on a cold winter day, unheated — part of Parliament for Zelenskyy’s speech.
Zelenskyy, wearing his trademark olive drab sweatshirt, urged allies to send his country jets, saying combat aircraft would be “wings for freedom.”
In a pointed and dramatic gesture, Zelenskyy presented the speaker of the House of Commons with a Ukrainian air force helmet, inscribed by a Ukrainian pilot: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”
The president is trying to soften allies’ reluctance to send advanced fighter jets, both because they are complex to fly and for fear of escalating the war.
The U.K. has repeatedly said it’s not practical to provide the Ukrainian military with British warplanes, but its stance may be changing. The government said Wednesday it would train Ukrainian pilots on “NATO-standard fighter jets,” without saying what kind.
Zelenskyy, who planned to meet later with King Charles III, noted that the British monarch was a qualified military pilot.
“The king is an air force pilot,” Zekenskyy said, and “in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”
Zelenskyy was greeted with applause, cheers and cries of “Slava Ukraini” — “Glory to Ukraine” — as he arrived in Parliament, where Ukraine’s cause has wide support from both the Conservative government and opposition parties.
Zelenskyy addressed the U.K. Parliament remotel y in March, two weeks after the start of the invasion. He echoed World War II leader Winston Churchill’s famous “never surrender” speech, vowing that Ukrainians “will fight till the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.”
He recalled how on a visit to London before the war, he sat on Churchill’s chair in his subterranean wartime headquarters, and had a feeling that he only now understood.
“It was the feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory,” Zelenskyy said.
In past wars, “evil lost,” Zekenskyy told U.K. lawmakers. “We know Russia will lose and we we know victory will change the world.″
Zelenskyy thanked Sunak and his predecessor Boris Johnson, who was one of Ukraine’s most vocal backers while he was prime minister. Sunak took office in October and has pledged to maintain the U.K.’s support.
Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible,” Zelenskyy said.
He also called for stronger sanctions against Moscow, until “Russia is deprived of any possibility to finance this war.”
He said he was speaking on behalf of the brave people of his own country — and thanked Britons for their bravery.
“London has stood with Kyiv since Day One,” he said.
Zelenskyy has rallied support for his country repeatedly through such speeches — mostly given remotely — to Western lawmakers. Support from allies has helped Ukraine mount a surprisingly stiff defense — and now the two sides are engaged in grinding battles.
The Ukrainian leader arrived on a Royal Air Force plane in London on Wednesday. Sunak greeted him on the tarmac, tweeting a photo of the two men embracing.
The two leaders held talks inside the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. residence before Zelenskyy headed to Parliament. Later he is due to hold an audience with the king at Buckingham Palace.
The U.K. is one of the biggest military backers of Ukraine and has sent the country more than 2 billion pounds ($2.5 billion) in weapons and equipment.
More than 10,000 Ukrainian troops have also been trained at bases in the U.K., some on the Challenger 2 tanks that Britain is sending. Britain says it will train 20,000 more in 2023.
“I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future,” Sunak said.
In Brussels, there were increasing expectations that the Ukrainian leader might also make his first visit to European Union institutions since the war began.
Leaders from 27-nation bloc will be gathering for a summit in Brussels on Thursday. That would enable Zelenskyy to meet with all major leaders of the bloc in one day. Zelenskyy has often addressed EU summits only through video calls from Ukraine.
The EU’s legislature has also slated a special plenary session in Brussels for Thursday in the hopes that Zelenskyy will come following his trip to Britain.
The London visit came as Russian forces blasted areas of eastern Ukraine with more artillery bombardments, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday, in what Kyiv authorities believe is part of a new thrust by the Kremlin’s forces before the invasion anniversary.