Tadgh McNally reports from Brussels:
“UKRAINE NEEDS MODERN aircraft.”
That has been the call this by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – who has completed a whistlestop tour of Europe yesterday following a series of visits London, Paris and Brussels.
The final stop on his trip was in the Belgian capital, with Zelenskyy making a rare in-person appearance at this week’s European Council summit to press the flesh and appeal to the EU’s leaders for extra military support ahead.
24 February marks the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion and both sides are expected to mount spring offensives in the coming weeks as conditions improve on the ground.
“I am grateful to all of you who help us. I am grateful to all of you who understand how much Ukraine needs such capabilities, artillery and ammunition, modern tanks, long-range missiles, and modern aircraft,” Zelenskyy told the gathered Presidents and Prime Ministers in an address yesterday, having earlier spoken in front of a packed EU Parliament chamber.
And I am grateful to all of you who provide such military assistance.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who arrived at the summit with Zelenskyy yesterday morning, told reporters that while he had not ruled out sending fighter jets to Ukraine, it would be impossible to send them in “the coming weeks”.
“I’m not ruling anything out … but that doesn’t correspond to today’s requirements,” Macron said, after the summit.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki didn’t rule out sending aircraft to Ukraine either, but said that Poland would follow the lead of other countries.
The Prime Minister of Slovakia, Eduard Heger tweeted that he would “work on” providing MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, while away from the summit UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak detailed how Britain would provide training for Ukrainian pilots.
On the question of sending actual planes, Sunak said on Wednesday that “nothing is off the table”.
Some leaders have raised concerns about the potential to escalate the ongoing conflict – with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying there are “many sensitive issues” to be discussed – “the pros and cons”.
Zelenskyy is likely to continue to put pressure on the EU and other allies for further military supports in the coming weeks.
In the days ahead of the summit, there were fervorous rumours about the Ukrainian President’s visit.
While there were attempts to keep the visit under wraps, mainly for security reasons, it initially leaked earlier this week that Zelenskyy intended to head to Europe – only the second time he has left Ukraine since the outbreak of the war.
The UK was the first country on his itinerary on Wednesday. When he landed here in Brussels yesterday morning, he was quickly escorted to the Parliament to address MEPs, telling them that Russia was attempting to destroy the “European way of life” through its invasion of Ukraine.
“We are defending ourselves against the most anti-European force in the modern world. We are defending ourselves. We, Ukrainians, are on the battlefield with you,” he said.
Finishing his speech, the Ukrainian President held a European Union flag with Parliament President Roberta Metsola, while gathered MEPs gave him a standing ovation.
Not long after he finished his speech, Zelenskyy was whisked off to the Council meeting, where he addressed European leaders and called for additional military support alongside further sanctions to be placed on Russia.
In the following hour, the press room was packed as word filtered out that Zelenskyy would be holding a press conference alongside Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel.
Answering the occasional question in English, Zelenskyy seemed in high spirits as he joked both with journalists asking questions and von der Leyen and Michel.
Despite his jovial demeanor, he remained stark and serious in his calls for further military supports, saying that while he had received “positive signals” on additional weapons, he wanted to have those assurances become “concrete”.
Ireland will not be providing weapons, and in his meeting with Zelenskyy, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar assured the Ukrainian President that other forms of aid would be provided.
He told reporters afterwards that Zelenskyy understood Ireland’s policy of neutrality.
“He understands the world and understands geopolitics and understands that small countries like Ireland don’t have much military equipment in any case and we’re a non-NATO member,” Varadkar said.
[He] is very grateful for the support that we have given so far, not just in terms of non-lethal equipment, but the financial aid, the political support for them becoming members of the European Union and also the fact that we’ve accepted so many Ukrainian refugees in Ireland.
Additional reporting by AFP