Zelensky makes surprise visit to London as Ukraine appeals for more military support
London (CNN) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky touched down in Britain on Wednesday in a surprise visit to London, at a time when Kiev is urging the West to send more weapons and military support to counter Russian advances.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak greeted Zelensky at Stansted Airport, north London, after he boarded a UK Royal Air Force C-17 transport plane. Sunak tweeted a photo of the pair embracing on the runway. “Welcome to the UK, President @ZelenskyyUa,” the caption reads, adding the hashtag #GlorytoUkraine.
Zelensky traveled to Downing Street with Sunak, before addressing the UK Parliament at Westminster Hall. He will also meet Britain’s King Charles, Buckingham Palace said, as well as Ukrainian troops being trained by British forces.
The president’s visit to London is only his second abroad since Russia invaded Ukraine almost a year ago, following his visit to Washington DC in December.
Ukraine’s first statement on Zelensky’s visit to the UK on Wednesday came in the form of emojis.
Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, regularly sends messages on Twitter that consist entirely, and often subtly, of emojis.
In this case, he posted emojis for: the UK flag, a soldier’s helmet, a flexed muscle, a pig’s snout (apparently representing “orcs” or Russian soldiers), and a skull and crossbones.
The trip comes as Zelensky has desperately sought military help from Western allies as Ukrainian officials warn that Moscow is preparing for a spring offensive.
Britain announced on Wednesday that it would send more military equipment to Kiev to help counter a possible Russian spring offensive. Sunak said the UK would expand training for Ukrainian fighter pilots and marines, also pledging long-term investment in Ukraine’s military.
Volodymyr Zelensky walks alongside Rishi Sunak at London’s Stansted Airport on February 8, 2023.
The United Kingdom will begin training Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets, in what CNN understands would be the first official training program for Ukrainian pilots on Western fighter jets. However, there was no mention of providing Ukraine with Western fighter jets that Zelensky has requested.
Kyiv is likely to welcome news that the UK’s training program is expanding to fighter jets, with Ukrainian officials having long demanded that Western allies supply the jets.
No 10 has so far refused to send its Typhoon or F-35 fighter jets to Ukraine, saying it was not the “right approach”. However, Wednesday’s announcement will raise hopes that there may be a future change in attitude.
The UK also said it would provide Ukraine with “longer-term capabilities”, without elaborating.
“The Prime Minister will also offer to provide Ukraine with longer-range capabilities,” a Downing Street statement said. “This will disrupt Russia’s ability to consistently target Ukraine’s national civilian and critical infrastructure and help relieve pressure on Ukraine’s front lines.”
NATO allies recently responded to Kiev’s calls for main battle tanks to bolster its military — which until now has relied on Soviet-era tanks.
The United Kingdom was the first to announce in mid-January that it would send 12 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. After weeks of pressure, this was followed by announcements from Germany and the US that they would send Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams tanks respectively.
Amid Zelensky’s visit, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced more sanctions against “the Russian military and Kremlin elites”.
The UK package targets six entities that provide military equipment such as drones, as well as eight individuals and one entity linked to “nefarious financial networks that help maintain wealth and power among Kremlin elites,” a government statement said. .
“Ukraine has shown Putin that it will not be broken by his tyrannical occupation. He has responded by indiscriminately hitting civilian areas and critical national infrastructure across the country,” Cleverly said. “We cannot let him succeed. We must increase our support.”
An earlier Downing Street statement said the sanctions would be introduced “in response to Russia’s continued bombing of Ukraine, including targeting those who have helped Putin build his personal fortune, and companies that are profiting from the the Kremlin’s war”.
The UK government has already imposed sanctions on hundreds of Russian individuals and entities since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, according to UK government records.
Sunak said: “President Zelensky’s visit to the UK is a testament to his country’s courage, determination and struggle and a testament to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries.
“Since 2014, the UK has provided vital training to Ukrainian forces, allowing them to defend their country, defend their sovereignty and fight for their territory.
“I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter pilots, ensuring that Ukraine has a military capable of protecting its interests well into the future.”