Sunak and Zelensky stress need for West to keep up support for Ukraine ahead of counteroffensive

 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak and Volodymyr Zelensky have stressed the need for the West to keep up its military, economic and political support for Ukraine as it prepares to imminently launch a counter-offensive against Russian forces.

The Prime Minister spoke with the Ukrainian president on Tuesday afternoon, Downing Street said.

President Zelensky thanked Britain for its donation of Storm Shadow long-range precision missiles. Mr Sunak said he was delivering on the commitment he made in February to provide Ukraine with long-range capabilities.

“The leaders discussed the importance of the international community sustaining the level of support it has provided so far to Ukraine, particularly as the country prepares to intensify its military operations,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed that the UK is sending such weapons to help Kyiv with its planned counter-offensive which is expected to be launched within weeks.

Mr Wallace told MPs on Thursday that the donation of the weapons was a “calibrated” and “proportionate” response to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and gave Ukrainians the “best chance to defend themselves”.

The Kremlin said Moscow would take an “appropriate” military response to any British-supplied Storm Shadow weapons used by Ukrainian forces.

A Downing Street spokesperson said on Friday: “The Prime Minister restated the UK’s commitment to ensuring Ukraine prevails and secures a just and lasting peace.”

During the call on Friday, Mr Sunak also thanked Mr Zelensky for the Ukrainian First Lady’s attendance of the King’s coronation, and Mr Zelensky thanked the city of Liverpool for hosting Eurovision on behalf of Ukraine.

Mr Sunak said he was “disappointed” Mr Zelensky was barred from addressing the Eurovision Song Contest over fears it would “politicise” the competition.

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister said he was proud the UK could do this for the Ukrainian people and looked forward to the day that the contest could be held on Ukrainian soil once again.”

It comes as around two kilometres (1.2 miles) of territory retaken by Ukrainian forces south of Bakhmut this week has represented a significant gain, and will protect an important supply chain, according to Ukrainian commanders that led the attack.

The battle for Bakhmut, once a salt mining town, has been grinding on for eight months.

Meanwhile the Defence Ministry in Moscow confirmed on Friday that Vladimir Putin’s troops have retreated from the area near Bakhmut.

It said they had taken up what it described as “more favourable positions” near the Berkhivka reservoir northwest of Bakhmut.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Putin’s “private” Wagner army whose troops have done the bulk of the fighting in and around Bakhmut, said that what the defence ministry had described was in fact a “rout” - not a tactical withdrawal.