Rishi Sunak believes it is “not practical” to send British fighter jets to Ukraine, despite being keen to boost support to Kyiv to avoid a lengthy stalemate in the country’s war with Russian invaders.
The Ukraine conflict is likely to grind on throughout 2023, western defence officials warned on Tuesday, even if both sides make territorial gains at different times.
The prime minister told his cabinet a “prolonged stalemate” in the war in Ukraine “would only benefit Russia” and its president Vladimir Putin, according to No 10.
Mr Sunak said he wanted to seize an opportunity to “accelerate” UK support to give Ukraine “the best chance of success and make the most of the window of opportunity where Russian forces were on the back foot”.
But Downing Street said training Volodymyr Zelensky’ forces on “extremely sophisticated” Typhoons and F-35s would take too long. No 10 did not, however, oppose allies sending their own jets after French president Emmanual Macron refused to rule out.
Officials also said recent pledges made by UK, US, Germany mean the total number of tanks heading to Ukraine now exceeds the 300 Mr Zelensky has asked for – but the vehicles are unlikely to be sent to the battlefield until the end of March.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace shared with cabinet ministers US estimates that 180,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured in the year-long invasion. That is compared to around 15,000 killed during the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Other Western officials were more cautious in their casualty estimates, suggesting both sides have lost more than 100,000 killed and wounded – with the Russians sustaining a higher proportion of fatalities.
The Kremlin has also lost two-thirds of its tanks, Mr Wallace also told ministers. A UK national security official told the cabinet that Russian forces are suffering from equipment and munition shortages, and have seen “significant attrition” among their fighting forces and officers.
After undertaking what was dubbed a Goldman Sachs-style review, Mr Sunak decided a “simple war of attrition” would not benefit Ukraine, given Russia’s advantage in numbers.
The PM’s spokesman said he believes that “we, working with allies, should accelerate our support to help maximise the opportunity we think there is this year to ensure Ukraine can make decisive gains in this ongoing conflict”.
The prime minister said his new strategy will be accompanied by “greater diplomatic efforts and planning work” with Ukraine. But it does not include sending the advanced fighter jets Kyiv is demanding.
Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “The UK’s Typhoon and F-35 fighter jets are extremely sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly. Given that, we believe it is not practical to send those jets into Ukraine.”
The No 10 official said the “length of time” in training is the limiting factor rather than opposition to supplying Ukraine with the lethal weaponry – but did not rule out support for allies to supply jets.
US president Joe Biden said on Monday he is not transferring warplanes to Kyiv despite the requests. Mr Macron said “nothing is excluded in principle” when asked about the potential use of western fighter jets in Ukraine – but warned against anything “escalatory”.
Western defence officials suggested Russia was unlikely to make significant breakthrough in south-east Ukraine, beyond recent gains in outskirts of the city of Bakhmut. The Russian capture of the town of Soledar and creeping gains in villages near Bakhmut were described a “sideshow”.
Officials said the Russians were struggling to backfill big losses suffered in Ukraine in recent months, and there was a race going on with Ukraine to fill the gap in the supply of weapons and equipment.
Despite weeks of trench warfare, the frontlines in eastern Ukraine had largely been frozen since November after Kyiv recaptured large areas of territory during the second half of 2022.