Sunak makes his move to outflank the US and Germany
Any meeting of world leaders that begins with a hug instead of a handshake suggests a relationship that transcends the geopolitical stage.
There is no doubt that, like Boris Johnson before him, Volodymyr Zelensky has grown close to Rishi Sunak as another British bastion of Ukraine’s quest for freedom from its Russian aggressor.
When the two men met in London, there was an apt degree of military precision to the statecraft employed to once again nudge the West into better equipping Ukraine against Vladamir Putin’s army.
No sooner had the Ukrainian president used his historic speech in Westminster Hall to call for “powerful English planes”, than the Prime Minister had ordered the Ministry of Defence to “investigate” what fighter jets Britain may be able to send to Ukraine.
“The Prime Minister has tasked the Defence Secretary with investigating what jets we might be able to give,” said a Number 10 spokesman.
“But, to be clear, this is a long-term solution rather than a short-term capability, which is what Ukraine needs most now.”
Whether or not the British can actually supply planes – and which ones might be the most effective against Russia’s highly lethal network of ground-based surface-to-air missile systems – remains a source of consternation. But there was no doubting how carefully the sequence of manoeuvres had been choreographed.
Coming after Mr Sunak had pledged to train Ukrainian pilots on “Nato-standard” aircraft, the offensive, like the UK’s intervention on tanks, was designed to outflank the reluctant Americans and Germans.
Only last month, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said it was not “practical” to supply aircraft such as the Typhoon and F-35 as training would take about 35 months.
But speaking ahead of Mr Zelensky’s whistlestop visit, Mr Sunak opened the door to the West finally providing air support by announcing an expansion in training “from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future”.
By agreeing to train Ukrainian pilots to fly something superior to the Soviet-era aircraft that are currently incapable of dropping the bombs needed to defeat the Russians, the UK has given allied neighbours less wriggle room to turn down Mr Zelensky’s repeated requests for more firepower.
In presenting Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, with the helmet of one of Ukraine’s most successful pilots, the father-of-two, 45, dressed in his trademark military fatigues, appeared to have been authorised to make a direct appeal to MPs, saying: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”
Politically, Mr Sunak is caught in somewhat of a pincer movement, with Mr Zelensky leading the charge on the supply of “English planes” and Mr Johnson bringing up the rear by calling for the UK “to give the Ukrainians the extra equipment they need to defeat Putin and to restore peace to Ukraine”.
Having been namechecked by Mr Zelensky during his speech, Mr Johnson appeared intent on bouncing the Prime Minister into not only providing air support but also “longer-range missiles and artillery” and even “more tanks”.
Arguing that we should be supplying Typhoon jets to Ukraine, he added: “It is true that the Typhoon is a four-nation plane and that we require the approval of allies for export. But there is no reason to think that Germany or others should oppose our decision – these are UK planes.”
Yet Mr Sunak is now perfectly placed to use the war in eastern Europe to his own strategic advantage. Mr Zelensky’s decision to visit the UK ahead of any EU country is already a major coup of post-Brexit “global” Britain.
If he also manages to convince the West to “finish the job”, as one of his predecessors put it, then he will be the 21st-century Prime Minister drawing parallels with Sir Winston Churchill.