Volodymyr Zelensky’s choice to make the UK his second foreign visit since the start of the war speaks to the relationship that Boris Johnson and his successors have built with the Ukrainian leader. It also speaks to the reality that the UK is the second largest donor of military equipment to Ukraine. Britain has given nearly £2.3bn in support to Ukraine so far, and that figure is expected to increase.
Rishi Sunak has announced that the UK will start training Ukrainian marines, as well as Ukraine’s pilots to fly more sophisticated jets. But Zelensky was really in the UK to ask for the jets themselves. The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, is investigating whether jets could be part of a “long-term solution”. The problems seem to be that we don’t have enough jets to give, they might not be the right ones for the Ukrainians and handing them over risks provoking Russia. The former Nato general secretary, George Robertson, told Andrew Marr on LBC yesterday that there were “formidable obstacles” to sending jets to Ukraine.
The problem for Sunak is that he is under immense pressure to act. Johnson (who received an honourable mention in Zelensky’s speech) is constantly pushing the Prime Minister to increase support, at a time when Sunak’s political vulnerability means that he can’t afford to be seen as weak on the issue.
Labour is also applying pressure on the government. Despite being slightly overshadowed by Zelensky’s visit, Keir Starmer announced two new policies on Ukraine at PMQs. First, as Rachel notes, he called for Vladimir Putin to be brought in front of the Hague for crimes committed during the war. Second, he said that the reconstruction of Ukraine should be paid for with sanctioned Russian assets.
Labour may not be in government now, but the war may go on for long after the next general election. Finally, 63 per cent of the public support sending fighter jets to Ukraine.
A pattern has emerged over the past year of Western nations crossing previously immovable red lines. The question of whether British jets will be flying over Ukraine anytime soon, therefore, quickly becomes a matter of practicality.
[See also: Rishi Sunak, the man who isn’t there]