Zelensky knows Britain is still the leader of Europe
It is no accident that Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, chose Britain as the stage on which to launch his latest campaign for the West to provide his military with much-needed warplanes.
Ever since Russia first began its campaign of conquest against Ukraine back in 2014, Britain has been at the forefront of European efforts to improve the Ukrainian military’s ability to defend the nation. After senior British military officers helped with the rigorous training programme that has transformed the Ukrainians into an effective fighting force, the provision of British-made NLAW anti-tank weapons were vital to destroying Russian heavy armour in the early exchanges of the conflict.
More recently, Downing Street’s decision to supply Ukraine with 14 Challenger 2 tanks was instrumental in persuading other Nato states to follow suit. The Ukrainians are now set to receive around 150 Western battle tanks, a critical contribution if they are to withstand the new offensive the Russians are said to be preparing for later this month.
Given the primitive tactics employed by Russian commanders, with reports that their troops suffered more than 1,000 casualties in a single day earlier this week, there is every chance that the Ukrainians, given the right equipment, will continue to enjoy the same level of success that they did last year.
This explains why Zelensky, having convinced reluctant Western leaders to part with their tanks, is now concentrating his energy on persuading them to be equally generous in supplying warplanes.
There is an immutable military logic to the Ukrainian leader’s request: for the promised tanks to be effective, they require air cover, without which they are vulnerable to Russian attack.
For the moment, Western leaders, especially US President Joe Biden, have been reluctant to accede to Zelensky’s request for US F-16 fighters. Downing Street has similarly been cautious in its response, although Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has suggested that the notion of supplying British warplanes cannot be ruled out, even if it could take months to train Ukrainian pilots to fly them.
During his surprise appearance at the Palace of Westminster yesterday, Zelensky made it abundantly clear that he expected Western resistance to supplying warplanes to subside in the same way it did over the tanks issue. “Today I will leave Parliament thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes,” he cheekily observed before presenting Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle with a Ukrainian pilot’s helmet bearing the message: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.”
If Zelensky’s stunt might have offended some British sensibilities, his decision to make his pitch in London was deliberate, as the Ukrainian leader knows that he is far more likely to get a receptive audience from British politicians than in Europe. Many leaders on the continent remain deeply ambivalent about supporting the Ukrainian cause, which is evident from the contrasting levels of military support. Recent figures show that Britain’s £2.3 billion military aid for Ukraine last year was 10 times the size of France’s contribution.
Early indications, moreover, suggest that Zelensky’s decision to make his warplanes appeal in London could pay dividends, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said to be looking to see what, if any, contribution Britain might make, which is a moot point given the current parlous state of Britain’s Armed Forces.
Since former chancellor George Osborne began his evisceration of the defence budget in 2010, the Royal Air Force has seen its fleet of fighter jets plummet to a level where it is barely able to fulfil its national defence commitments, let alone make a significant contribution to Ukraine’s war effort. The premature retirement of both the Harrier jump jets and the Tornados – both of which could have been usefully deployed in Ukraine – means the RAF is left with its fleet of 100 or so Typhoons, many of which are in the process of undergoing costly upgrades.
Meanwhile, defence budget constraints mean that Britain has only purchased a handful of the F-35 Lightnings that were supposed to replace the Harriers. Instead of buying the 138 F-35s originally proposed, only 48 will have been delivered by 2025. Sunak will quickly discover that the RAF’s fighter plane hangars are bare, and that, realistically, Britain has no warplanes to offer Zelensky even if it wanted to.
This should serve as a salutary lesson for Sunak, who is under pressure to address the shortcomings in the defence budget which have left the military desperately short of equipment on a number of fronts.
The dire state of the British military was reflected in recent comments made to Wallace by a senior US general, who warned that the Pentagon no longer regards the British army as a top-level fighting force. This searing indictment of our military strength must be addressed if Britain’s attempts to position itself as the leader of the free world are to have a shred of credibility.