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Will Ukraine's Zelensky get jets now?

President Zelensky chose the right time to embark upon his second foreign trip since the Russian war
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the US Congress as US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) applaud at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. - AFP
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the US Congress as US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) applaud at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. - AFP

Volodymyr Zelensky’s whirlwind ‘surprise’ visit to three European capitals – London, Paris and Brussels – was an immensely successful trip despite the fact that he could not get any clear-cut pledge from his friends for “jets”, a top priority in his agenda at the moment, but he returned home with a full bag.

For two key reasons, the timing of this trip was strategically very poignant. One, the impending anniversary of the Russian war as an emotional signpost, and two, the much-awaited spring offensive by the Russians in the coming weeks – while some Russia watchers believe that it has already started.

After a failed bid to inflict a dark and harsh winter on Ukraine, Putin is now desperate to win more territories to generate momentum for his spring offensive. The ferocious Russian attacks on Bakhmut, which has held out for months in bloody defiance against invading forces, is a part of Putin’s new war plan. He wants to utilise the fall of Bakhmut to prompt his dispirited forces to unleash a massive spring offensive to further annex more territories inside Ukraine to put pressure on Kyiv.

President Zelensky chose the right time to embark upon his second foreign trip since the Russian war. Apparently, Zelensky’s trip had two main objectives: revitalise the moral support of the Europeans at this crucial phase of the war when Moscow is almost ready to start its spring assault, and to gain commitment for more warfare and renew its request for fighter aircraft particularly British Typhoon jets or similar machines.

Except for some rudimentary success on the question of fighter jets, he put up a great show during his short stay in Europe. In his speech to the European Parliament, President Zelensky said Ukrainian soldiers are battling the "most anti-European force" in the world as he reiterated requests for military support in the fight against Russia, linking Ukraine’s fate to that of Europe as a whole.

"Free Europe cannot be imagined without free Ukraine," he implored. He touched the right chords at the right time, but he could not find many sympathetic ears for his request for warplanes. It took him almost one year of intensive canvassing to get a positive nod from the Europeans and Washington for the supply of battle tanks. His case was strong, but Nato leadership was hesitant to yield to his demand on the assumptive pretext of possible direct collision with Moscow.

Now, after getting green signal for tanks, he is seriously pleading for fighter jets too. Zelensky warned that supplies were running out, and without fighter jets or longer-range missiles there was a risk of "stagnation" in his country's fight against Russia.

According to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), at the beginning of the conflict, Ukraine had a modest air force consisting of Soviet-era jets, estimated to be around 120 combat-capable.

Due to the ongoing war, the number of aircraft has shrunken drastically, and considering the presence of Russian aircraft and air defence systems, experts claim that Ukraine possesses a limited air capacity. Another important factor is that the battle tanks recently promised by the US, Germany and UK will not be able to perform better unless they have a reasonable air coverage. With a meagre air force, Ukraine will not be able to utilise these sophisticated battle machines at the optimum level. Ukraine certainly desperate to acquire these warplanes to counter the incessant aerial attacks by the Russian air force.

But the jets request is not likely to find a positive response anytime sooner with a firm no from US President Joe Biden, and an even firmer rejection by the German Chancellor Scholz. The ostensible excuse being presented by Sunak is that Typhoon jets are “very sophisticated pieces of kit” and it could take “three years” to train a pilot to fly one. He has further pointed out the logistical handicaps and that there is a “supply chain around the aircraft”.

Apart from this technical problem, fissure are appearing within the European leadership on the question of quantum of military aid to Ukraine. German Chancellor Scholtz is particularly cautioning about the on-going race among the European countries to outcompete each other on provision of military package to Ukraine.

However, another reassurance for the Europeans is that they – and the United States – have already reasonably fortified the Ukrainian air defence system by providing sophisticated surface-to-air missiles – including the recent pledge by Washington to provide the Patriot System. Zelensky also knows this very well. The last one year has taught him how to manoeuvre the simmering internal frictions of the European leaders.

During this trip, Zelensky excessively pushed for the fighter jets in a hope to find some inroads as a starting point. Eventually he was successful in getting a promise for the training of Ukrainian pilots by the RAF. The British offer to train Ukrainian pilots on modern Nato fighter jets is a carefully couched hint to the rest of Nato that at some point it may have to provide modern jets to help Ukraine defend its airspace from the Russian air force. So, Zelensky, a comedian-turned-politician-turned- war-campaigner, has been able to at least find a nick for his desired fighter jets. Still a lot depends upon how the Ukraine war unfolds in the next two months.

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