LONDON — Ukraine has no permanent seat at the G7 leaders’ summit. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already made sure his talking points will dominate discussions at the G7’s annual get-together in Japan this weekend.
Zelenskyy arrived in the U.K. unexpectedly Monday morning after visiting Italy, Germany and France as part of a diplomatic blitz designed to ramp up military support for his country and — crucially — to build the case among Western allies for modern jet aircraft to be shipped to Kyiv.
And with the G7 summit now just days away, Zelenskyy spoke optimistically of a new “coalition of jets” — countries committed to providing Ukraine with modern fighter aircraft — following talks with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at his country residence, Chequers.
“We can’t control the sky,” the Ukrainian president told broadcasters. “We want to create this jets coalition, and I’m very positive with it. We spoke about it and I see that in the closest time, you will hear some, I think, very important decisions — but we have to work a little bit more on it.”
Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Kyiv has tried to persuade allies to supply its military with modern fighter jets, with fourth-generation U.S.-built F-16s the preferred option of Ukrainian military chiefs.
The West has so far been reluctant to agree, amid concerns about further military escalation plus technical barriers, including the need to build longer runaways in Ukraine and the training required for Ukrainian pilots.
The U.K., however, is publicly supportive, and Sunak made clear Monday he will be making the case for air support both at the Council of Europe summit in Iceland on Tuesday and in subsequent talks with world leaders at the G7 this weekend.
“Other countries are involved. I’m talking to those leaders,” Sunak said. “I’ll be doing more of that this week in my international engagements. We’re very keen to build that coalition of countries to give Volodymyr and his people the aircraft support they need.”
Britain is so far limiting its own support to the training of Ukrainian pilots, with a scheme set to start this summer aimed at teaching them to use NATO-standard aircraft, including F-16s. On Monday, Sunak also pledged the delivery of a new package of long-range drones to Ukraine over the coming months.
Zelenskyy’s flying visit to London followed a three-hour working dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, similarly focused on Ukraine’s military requirements ahead of an expected counteroffensive against Russian forces. According to an Elysée Palace official, Ukraine’s request for fighter jets was among the topics discussed.
“On fighter jets, one of the concerns of the Ukrainians is how to protect their skies, from drone attacks, from helicopters strikes, from Russia fighter jets. So it’s totally natural to speak about everything and aviation is part of the conversation,” said the official, who asked to be quoted anonymously due to protocol reasons.
Zelenskyy, it appears, had some success. In a TV interview Monday evening, Macron opened the door for the first time to France launching its own training program for Ukrainian fighter pilots.
“There is no taboo,” Macron said. But the French president would not be drawn on any plans to actually deliver French fighter jets, insisting the question remains “theoretical” for now.
Yuriy Sak, an adviser to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov, said Zelenskyy wants combat jets at the top of the agenda at the G7 summit in Hiroshima and then again at the annual NATO summit in Lithuania in July. He said the Ukrainian president received “assurances” from Western leaders during his latest European tour that they will discuss the issue in the days ahead.
Although Britain, Italy, France and Germany do not have F-16s to offer, Sak said “they have an important voice in the international coalition” and Ukraine would like them to “encourage” allies such as the U.S. and Turkey.
Ukraine wants between 40 to 50 F-16s in total, Sak added, forming three or four squadrons to defend its skies from Russian bombardments. Kyiv is telling Western leaders the need for modern jets has become more acute since the Russian Air Force began widespread use of guided glide bombs in March, reaching targets at greater distances. Ukraine currently has “nothing to stop” the Russian aircraft carrying them, Sak said.
“Everybody understands that the topic is ripe for discussion. Nobody said that it’s impossible. If you compared it with three months ago, when we were still struggling to get tanks, today everybody is talking about the jet coalition — that’s a very promising sign,” he said. “We understand that our air defense will not be complete without fighter jets, F-16s.”
Clea Caulcutt reported from Paris. Nick Vinocur contributed reporting from Brussels.