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Britain pledges to train Ukraine’s pilots, signals it may send warplanes

By Stephen Castle and Edward Wong

Britain’s new promise to train Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard jets is just a “first step,” the country’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said Wednesday, strongly suggesting the training pledge was a prelude to providing Ukraine with advanced British fighter planes to help battle invading Russian forces.

“With regard to aircraft, we have already said nothing is off the table, and the first step on that has to be to have people who can fly what are very sophisticated pieces of kit,” Sunak said at a joint media conference with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, at a British military base in southern England. “When it comes to fighter combat aircraft, of course, they are part of the conversation,” Sunak said, adding, “we do need to make sure that they can operate the aircraft that they potentially could be using.”

At the news conference, the two leaders spoke from lecterns in front of a Challenger 2 tank at a military base in Dorset, in the south of England, where members of the Ukrainian armed forces have been trained. Britain, which was in the vanguard in offering tanks to Ukraine, has promised to send 14 of its Challenger 2 vehicles, and Sunak said they would arrive within “weeks.”

Wearing his familiar military-style clothing, Zelenskyy thanked Britain for its support in the conflict with Russia and said he had heard from Sunak of his “desire to provide fighter jets.” And he warned that without additional advanced weaponry from the West, the war in Ukraine could descend into a stalemate with Russia.

Without new weapons, Zelenskyy said, “There will be stagnation, which will not lead to anything good.”

In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the urgency of bolstering Ukraine’s military capabilities. At a joint news conference with Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, Blinken said that recent statements by President Vladimir Putin showed that the Russian leader still had no interest in diplomacy.

“Clearly President Putin has no genuine interest in diplomacy right now,” Blinken said, adding that U.S. officials believe “the best way to hasten prospects for diplomacy is to keep tilting the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor. This will ensure that Ukraine has the strongest possible hand to play at a negotiating table when one emerges.”

For his part, Sunak has made it clear that Britain has shifted from its initial reluctance to provide Ukraine with fighter jets, though he has made no formal pledge to send them.

At the news conference with Zelenskyy, Sunak said, “There are other allies involved” in the question of sending jets. Doing so would require the approval of other Western nations, which he said Britain was talking to.

The news conference followed Zelenskyy’s address to the British Parliament and his meeting with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace, and he went to Paris on Wednesday evening for another stop on the brief tour of Europe he started in the morning in Britain.

Throughout the news conference, Zelenskyy subtly kept up the pressure on Sunak, who said that it would take inexperienced pilots three years to learn to fly sophisticated British jets like the Typhoon.

“When it comes to Typhoon,” Zelenskyy said, “I didn’t know it takes three years to train a pilot like that. Come on, we will be sending you pilots who have already trained for 2 1/2 years.”

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