Ukraine's Zelenskiy, in Britain, wins pledge of long range drones
By Sachin Ravikumar and Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain promised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy long-range attack drones when he visited the country on Monday as part of European tour aimed at securing new weapons for a counteroffensive against Russia.
Zelenskiy met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the British leader's Chequers country residence, where the pair also discussed Ukraine's request for Western fighter jets.
Britain said it would begin basic training of Ukrainian pilots this summer "hand in hand with UK efforts to work with other countries on providing F-16 jets."
"We want to create this jets coalition and I'm very positive with it...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," Zelenskiy, who arrived from visits to Rome, Berlin and Paris, told reporters after the meeting.
Sunak said Britain would provide Ukraine with hundreds of air defence missiles and further unmanned aerial systems, including new long-range attack drones with a range of more than 200 km, to be delivered "over the coming months".
Sunak's spokesman also said Britain had no plans to send fighter jets to Ukraine.
"The Ukrainians made the decision to train their pilots on F-16s and you will know the RAF don't use those," he said.
The Kremlin on Monday said Russia takes an "extremely negative" view of Britain's decision to supply Ukraine with more military hardware but does not believe London's help will change the course of the conflict.
"The conflict is at a pivotal moment," Sunak said. "The UK will remain steadfast in supporting Ukraine and its people to defend itself...it is important for the Kremlin to also know that we are not going away. We are here for the long term."
"SOME MORE TIME"
After keeping its troops on the defensive for six months, Ukraine is planning to start major assaults to reclaim territory using newly acquired weapons from the West. It has already achieved its biggest gains since last November in fighting around the city of Bakhmut in the past week.
Zelenskiy won additional pledges of tanks, armoured vehicles and other weapons in recent days from Germany and France.
Asked whether the counteroffensive could begin without the provision of more advanced weapons, Zelenskiy said: "We really need some more time, not too much. We will be ready in some time...I can't share with you."
Britain has frequently been the first country to offer Ukraine new capabilities, often followed by similar offers from other allies. It was the first to offer battle tanks in January.
Last week, London announced it was sending Ukraine its air-launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles, with a far longer range than Western weapons sent previously, breaking a taboo against arms that can strike deep behind Russian lines.
After the United States, Britain has been one of the largest suppliers of military aid to Ukraine, contributing 2.3 billion pounds ($2.9 billion) worth of support last year and pledging a similar amount for 2023.
Oleksandr Musiyenko, a Kyiv-based military analyst, said the latest Western assistance was "fairly significant".
"It's also very important that shells and ammunition are supplied to Ukraine regularly, as a counteroffensive is a process that expends a lot of ammunition," Musiyenko said. "It's vital it does not stop. The next step is aircraft."
The Ukrainian president also on Monday issued a new appeal for NATO membership, calling for a political decision at the Western alliance's summit in July in Vilnius.
"It is time to remove the biggest security uncertainty in Europe — that is, to approve a positive political decision on (Ukrainian) membership in NATO," he said in a video address to the Copenhagen Democracy Summit. "This is worth doing at the July summit already. This will be a timely signal."
($1 = 0.7923 pounds)
(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Sachin Ravikumar, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Kate Holton, Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan)