Rishi Sunak’s government is keeping an eye on the potential risk of escalation as it considers sending fighter jets to Ukraine, Downing Street has said.
The prime minister said warplanes were now “part of the conversation’ after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky asked for “powerful English planes” during his visit to the UK.
Asked about some allies’ concerns that supplying jets could risk dragging Nato into the conflict, Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “We take these decisions carefully and we do it thoughtfully. We are aware of potential escalatory risks.”
Asked about the Kremlin’s warning that sending jets would illicit a military response, the No 10 official stressed that “it continues to be Russia that is escalating”.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte told the BBC on Thursday that Nato allies had to make “abolsutely sure” they were not risking “direct confrontation” with Moscow by giving planes to Ukraine.
It comes as defence secretary Ben Wallace said Britain will not be giving fighter jets to Ukraine in the short-term – making clear any potential transfer would take months.
Mr Wallace, in Rome for talks, said there was no immediate prospect of British jets being offered to Kyiv. “This is not a simple case of towing an aircraft to the border,” Mr Wallace told the BBC.
He added: “Britain knows what Ukraine needs and is very happy to help in many ways trying to achieve the effect. Those same effects can be done, but potentially through a different way – and without taking months, which of course gifting fighter jets would take.”
Mr Wallace also dismissed Boris Johnson’s call for the UK to provide 100 Typhoon warplanes as “unrealistic” – pointing out that Typhoons are made several different countries and agreement of allies would be needed.
Mr Wallace has been told by Mr Sunak to investigate which jets the UK could potentially give to Ukraine. Britain will also train Ukrainian pilots on fighter jets the UK has, while also instructing them on Nato tactics, No 10 has indicated.
The PM – who promised further support for Ukraine during the British leg of Mr Zelensky’s visit – said on Thursday the offer of pilot training was the “first step” which could lead to the eventual supply of fighter planes.
“We’re talking about further support, potentially with aircraft as well,” Mr Sunak said. “The important first step of that journey is to make sure that we provide the training for Ukrainian pilots to be able to use that very sophisticated equipment.”
Senior military and security figures have raised doubts about the likelihood that British fighter jets will be sent – despite Mr Sunak saying nothing was “off the table”.
Former national security adviser Peter Ricketts said “it’s not going to work” because the RAF jets need very specialized ground crews and other support. Lord Ricketts suggested US F16 fighter planes would be a “better bet” because there are lots of them available in Europe.
Asked about Typhoon planes, Lord Ricketts told ITV’s Peston it would take “at least a year” to give them to Ukraine, adding: “You can’t just hand over the keys to an experienced pilot and they can fly the plane away.”
Former Nato Secretary George Robertson told LBC that a UK jet delivery looked “very unlikely”, suggesting it would be better to focus on “replenishing what we’ve sent to Ukraine”.
Former head of the Army Lord Dannatt also raised doubts about how much the UK could provide, though he said it was possible to send RAF Typhoons.
“I am interested to see what the Ministry of Defence can offer. I mean, we don’t have a huge stock of modern fast jets to spare,” Lord Dannett told the i newspaper.
Mr Zelensky said he accepted that “not everything depends just on the decision of Great Britain” during his press conference with Mr Sunak.
But the Ukrainian leader expressed his impatience at the idea of a long delay in sending jets, saying: “Come on, we will be sending you pilots who’ve already trained for two and a half years.”
He met with French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz last night, telling a press conference there is “very little time” to provide the aircraft.
The UK will seek to train Ukrainian pilots “as quickly as humanly possible”, No 10 said on Thursday. The training could be speeded up as some pilots may have years of experience, “albeit in Soviet-era jets that are very different to our own”, the PM’s spokesman said.
Mr Johnson, who was prime minister at the outbreak of the conflict and a close ally of Mr Zelensky, urged the UK to give Ukraine the “tools to finish the job” of defeating the Kremlin’s troops. “The faster we do it, the bigger the saving in life.”
The Ukrainian president addressed the European parliament in Brussels on Thursday in the latest stop on a tour which began with his surprise visit to the UK.
“A Ukraine that is winning is going to be member of the European Union,” Mr Zelensky said to applause, building his address around the common destiny Ukraine and the 27-nation bloc face in confronting Russia head-on.
Asks if he would have to wait for years for EU membership, Mr Zelensky said: “We need it this year. When I say this year, I mean this year – a 2023.”