UK to give Ukraine fighter jet training as Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has arrived on a surprise visit to the UK on Wednesday as Britain unveils plans to provide Kyiv with more weaponry and assistance, including training for Nato-standard jets.

Zelenskyy, who was greeted by UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on landing at Stansted airport, will address parliament in only his second foreign trip since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of his country nearly a year ago.

The visit to Britain, one of Kyiv’s strongest western backers, comes after the Ukrainian leader’s December trip to Washington and before his expected attendance at a summit in Brussels this week.

The UK is the first western ally to offer to train Ukrainian pilots on Nato-standard aircraft.

“I am proud that today we will expand . . . training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine is militarily able to defend its interests well into the future,” Sunak said.

Concern is mounting in the west that Ukraine has a narrow window to launch a counteroffensive in the spring, as Russia amasses forces, prompting allies to send heavier equipment such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and longer range weapons.

But so far, Nato countries have not acceded to Ukraine’s call for western aircraft, particularly American F-16s, which would allow the country’s air force to better protect its skies from Russian aerial attacks.

“This is a major milestone in terms of further increasing Ukraine’s military capability in the face of Russian aggression,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov, said of Britain’s decision to provide training for pilots.

“It sends a strong signal . . . to Ukraine’s other allies, that the time has come to break through one of the last remaining hurdles — providing Ukraine with modern fighter jets.”

Ukrainian officials have said the F-16s could intercept cruise missiles and attack drones that Russia has used to target Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and civilian objects, while providing support for ground forces.

The UK trains its fighter jet pilots initially on Hawk 2 planes during a so-called “operational conversion schedule” that typically takes six months. British officials said that period could be shortened to three months for experienced Ukrainian pilots.

However, there is no direct compatibility between knowing how to fly Hawk jets and operating F-35s or Typhoons. Moreover, the UK is suffering from a shortage of fast jet trainers, with trainee pilots sometimes having to wait for years to enter the programmes.

Analysts said the UK would probably train Ukrainian pilots in simulators on Nato standard procedures, cockpit information display, weapon programming formats and tactics. “The idea [is] that when Ukraine is provided with Nato fighter [jets] at some point, conversion training will take less time,” said Justin Bronk, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London. “In the meantime, Ukrainian pilots gain the benefit of western aerial tactics with their existing aircraft,” he added.

France is reportedly considering a request from Kyiv to train Ukrainian fighter pilots. But some western governments, including the US, have questioned whether fighter jets should be a priority, citing the long training process.

Last week, in an interview with TalkTV’s Piers Morgan Uncensored, Sunak refused to rule out sending jets in the future, but warned that the planes were “incredibly sophisticated pieces of equipment” that required “months if not years” of extensive training.

Ukraine’s air force spokesperson, Yuriy Ignat, said late last year that roughly 50 experienced Ukrainian pilots with English-language skills had been selected and were ready to begin training on western jets. Many of them trained with US forces during military exercises before the war.

The UK will also increase weapons supplies to Ukraine.

“President Zelenskyy’s visit to the UK is a testament to his country’s courage, determination and fight, and a testament to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries,” Sunak said.

Zelenskyy will also meet Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, chief of defence staff, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, chief of the air staff, alongside other defence and security personnel, as well as King Charles.

The UK’s foreign office on Wednesday announced further sanctions against Russia. Six organisations that provide military equipment have been targeted in the latest round of sanctions, including helicopter parts supplier RT-Komplekt and dronemaker CST. Eight more individuals linked to President Vladimir Putin’s financial assets have also been sanctioned.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly said the new sanctions would “accelerate the economic pressure on Putin”.

“I am determined . . . that Russia will have no access to the assets we have frozen until it ends, once and for all, its threats to Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and integrity,” he added.

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