Ukraine is asking for fighter jets, Europe is not ready to answer

“Freedom will win," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during his recent visits to European capitals, searching for fighter jets to support his country in the war against the Russian invasion.

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Zelensky flew to London to address the U.K. Parliament and meet with King Charles III and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Afterward, he flew to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. On Feb. 9, he spoke at the European Parliament in Brussels and met with the 27 heads of state of the European Union. This was his second trip outside of Ukraine since the war began in February 2022. He came to the U.S. to meet President Biden and address Congress last December.

Zelensky asked allies to provide Ukraine with newer fighter jets. The response he got from European leaders was not yet affirmative, but the issue is currently being discussed.

“We have freedom, give us wings to protect it”

In both his public addresses to the U.K. and the EU parliaments, the focus was not the request for fighter jets.

Zelensky made sure to show gratitude for the support already provided, and he received applause and a standing ovation in the European Parliament (the British attendees didn’t have chairs to sit on in Westminster Hall).

In London, he appealed to British pride in their fight for freedom during World War II and compared their past struggle to what Ukrainians are currently experiencing. Zelensky stressed the importance of U.K. support to Ukraine “since day one.” In Brussels, Belgium, Zelensky highlighted how Ukraine is part of Europe. He said his country is fighting a war to defend the European way of life from the “most anti-European force of the modern world.” In his speech, Zelensky said that Ukraine and Europe’s common future depends on a shared commitment to protect Europe. And he called on all European citizens to take action, including by sheltering refugees and stopping disinformation.

President Zelensky only mentioned the need for jets when addressing the British parliament. He gifted the U.K. a Ukranian pilot's helmet, with the inscription: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it."

Which fighter jets Ukraine needs and what countries are ready to do

Time magazine observed that the jets Zelensky asked for are U.S. F-16s and F-35s, Eurofighter Typhoons, Swedish Gripen, and French Rafales, to replace the Soviet-era fighter jets that Ukraine is currently using. Reuters reported that the Ukrainian Air Force is convinced that the upgrade could make a difference in the war. Timing is also crucial: according to the Biden administration, the next six months will be critical in determining who will win this war.

European leaders are still pondering how to respond. The main reason for delays seems to be “technical,” as discussed by Chris Mason for BBC. He reported that training pilots can be an extremely long process and the maintenance of such aircrafts can require complex engineering supports. Therefore, it is not only a matter of supplying the jets but also a comprehensive support system to go with them. But some of these problems can be overcome. For example, the British government stated that it will look at reducing the training times for more experienced pilots.

A more political reason why to keep discussing the issue was expressed by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to BBC. Rutte stressed that if jets were to be provided to Ukraine, this decision would need to prevent a direct confrontation with Russia that would cause other NATO countries to join the fight. In Russia, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that the debate over the fighter jets is seen as a growing involvement of other countries in the war, which can escalate tension.

How are European countries reacting to Zelensky’s request?

POLITICO reported that the U.K. will train Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard aircraft and has offered longer-range missiles, but the U.K. secretary of defense ruled out the option of sending jets in the immediate time.

The French president hasn’t excluded the option of sending fighter jets but dismisses the possibility that it will happen in the upcoming weeks as reported by France24.

On a different position, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has declared that the issue around providing aircraft “does not arise at all” and doesn’t want “constant competition” in securing better weapons systems to happen as reported by POLITICO.

But there are two countries that would be ready to supply fighter jets. According to the Financial Times, Poland and Slovakia are willing to provide Soviet-built MiG-29s which Ukraine already has and uses in the war. But these countries said that they can help only if a coordinated response with NATO allies were to happen.

Last month Biden said the U.S. would not provide F-16 to Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “the issue of aircraft is not the most urgent issue now,” because the focus should be, for example, on providing ammunition, but there are ongoing discussions on how to meet Ukraine’s needs.