Zelensky makes a surprise visit to London's House of Commons hoping to secure 'powerful English planes'

In a surprise visit to London on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a standing-room-only crowd of British lawmakers, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in the 900-year-old Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the parliamentary estate. Clad in his trademark olive-green military sweatshirt, Zelensky ingratiated himself with his audience by making numerous references to British culture and history.

He handed a helmet to the speaker of the House of Commons. It belonged, Zelensky said, to a Ukrainian pilot and the inscription on it read: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with Ukrainian troops
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meet Ukrainian troops being trained to command Challenger 2 tanks at a military facility in Dorset, England, on Wednesday. (Andrew Matthews/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Zelensky said he finally knew what it was like to have sat in Winston Churchill’s chair in the War Rooms, the heavily fortified underground bunker from which Britain commanded its armed forces in World War II. He reminded his hosts that he once thanked them for “delicious English tea” and that he’d now be leaving their presence thanking them for “powerful English planes.”

This was an allusion to the British government’s announcement that it will expand its training program to include marines and fighter pilots.

Zelensky and Sunak meet Ukrainian troops at a military facility in England.
Zelensky and Sunak meet Ukrainian troops at a military facility in Dorset on Wednesday. (Andrew Matthews/AFP via Getty Images)

Ever since Western nations, including the U.K., the U.S. and Germany, agreed to send Ukraine battle tanks, Kyiv has been outspoken about its desire to next receive NATO warplanes. The biggest ask on its wish list for enhanced security assistance is F-16s, the multi-role fighter jet in service in the U.S. Air Force and in those of a number of other nations including Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Greece. When asked at the White House on Jan. 31 if the U.S. was planning to directly send F-16s to Ukraine, President Biden offered a terse response: “No.” He was not asked, however, nor did he specify, if Washington would block third-party nations from sending them. CNN reported the same day that “the U.S. has not indicated to allies that it would be opposed to other countries sending their stock of F-16s to Ukraine.”

The U.K. does not stock or fly F-16s. The Royal Air Force uses a mixture of Eurofighter Typhoons and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. It also uses a fleet of BAE Hawk jet trainer aircraft to train fighter pilots; these will almost certainly be the aircraft used to train Ukraine’s new generation of combat pilots.

“There is an ongoing discussion among other countries about their own fighter jets, some of which are more akin to what Ukrainian pilots are used to,” a spokesperson for Sunak said at a press conference. London expects to begin training the first Ukrainian pilots this spring in a program meant to ensure they are “able to fly sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future,” according to an accompanying press release.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Zelensky addresses parliamentarians in Westminster Hall, London, on Wednesday. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire via Getty Images)

Sunak tasked his defense secretary, Ben Wallace, with “investigating what jets we might be able to give [Ukraine],” while stressing that this was a long-term rather than short-term solution for Ukraine’s military needs. In that long term, there’s a possibility that older RAF Eurofighter Typhoon jets may end up in Ukraine; a number of the U.K.’s older Eurofighters are due to be retired in 2025, almost entirely for budgetary rather than operational reasons.

Yet again, the U.K. is acting as a dam breaker on weapon provisions to Ukraine. Previously, after Germany said it would authorize the dispatch of battle tanks only if another Western ally went first, the British government announced it would send 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks, a decision that arguably sped America’s unexpected but fateful agreement to send its Abrams tanks. At least some of the Challengers are set to arrive next month.

The U.K. is attempting to “move the conversation forward” on fighter aircraft in much the same way it did with tanks, according to a senior European diplomat. “The Brits just get it,” a senior member of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense told Yahoo News.

Zelensky on Wednesday explicitly referred to the early delivery of the powerful but simple-to-use NLAW antitank missiles, shipped to Ukraine in RAF heavy transport aircraft in their thousands, which gave Ukrainian soldiers a fighting chance against the first waves of Russian heavy armor.

A Ukrainian border guard carries an Anglo-Swedish NLAW anti-tank missile launcher near the Ukrainian border with Russia and Belarus
A Ukrainian border guard carries an Anglo-Swedish NLAW antitank missile launcher near the Ukrainian border with Russia and Belarus. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

In speaking at Westminster Hall, Zelensky joined a rarefied group of foreign leaders. The last head of state to be accorded that honor was President Barack Obama, in 2011. As the Ukrainian president arrived Wednesday, he was greeted by rapturous applause and cheers from the assembled crowds of MPs, lords and staffers. “It was something you’d expect for a rock star,” said one parliamentary employee who was present. “I don’t think any other political figure on Earth would be able to get so many people to turn out in such a short space of time.”

“Zelensky’s visit confirms the U.K. as the foremost guarantor of European security after the U.S.,” Alicia Kearns, an MP and the Conservative chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Yahoo News. “His genuine affection for our country was evident.”

And the feeling is mutual. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, MPs were unanimous in their support for Ukraine during Questions to the Prime Minister, a weekly grilling of the British leader by legislators, including members of his own party. It was an atypically concordant session, with little of the jeering and political point-scoring typically heard during the session. Sunak is not only prime minister; he is also the head of an embattled and increasingly unpopular Conservative Party. “Regardless of other differences, we’re pretty much all aligned on Ukraine,” Stewart McDonald, an MP from the Scottish National Party, told Yahoo News.

Labour leader Keir Starmer meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer with Zelensky in the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday. (Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

If anything, rivals compete to show who is more enthusiastic in their support of the Ukrainians. Keir Starmer, the leader of the British Labour Party, which currently enjoys a healthy 26-point lead over the Conservatives in the polls, used all his allotted time to demonstrate his party’s total support for the British government’s policy of arming Ukraine.

Starmer has also called for the seizure of frozen Russian assets and for those to be used for Ukraine’s reconstruction after the war, a significant policy proposal given London’s long and notorious status as a center of Russian wealth and a hub for Russian money laundering. Roman Abramovich, the former owner of the Chelsea Football Club, was among the U.K.-resident oligarchs sanctioned after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. So was Polina Kovaleva, the daughter of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s alleged mistress, who, at a mere 26 years old, somehow managed to own, without a mortgage, a $5.3 million mansion in the tony London district of Kensington.

Zelensky arrived in London on Wednesday morning on an RAF C-17 transport aircraft, in a visit that had been a closely guarded secret. He explicitly thanked former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, still as controversial a figure at home as he is a hero in Ukraine for persuading other countries to support the embattled country. “London has been with Kyiv since day one,” Zelensky said.

It was only the second overseas visit he has made since the start of the invasion. According to press reports, he will be traveling to Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. From there, Zelensky will go to Brussels, where he will meet with officials during a European Union leadership summit and will likely address the European Parliament.