By JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a rare trip out of his country Wednesday, daring to visit Britain in a bid for more advanced weapons as Kyiv braces for an expected Russian offensive and hatches its own plans to retake land held by Moscow’s forces.
Zelenskyy arrived on a Royal Air Force plane at London Stansted airport north of the U.K. capital. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak greeted him on the tarmac, tweeting a photo of him embracing the Ukrainian leader.
“The United Kingdom was one of the first to come to Ukraine’s aid. And today I’m in London to personally thank the British people for their support,” Zelenskyy said on Instagram.
A large convoy of vehicles left the airport and headed straight to Downing Street in central London. Both leaders posed briefly for photos in front of the famous black No. 10 door that leads into the U.K. prime minister’s residence.
Zelenskyy and Sunak will hold talks before heading to Parliament, where the Ukrainian president will address lawmakers.
It’s his first trip to the U.K. since Russia’s invasion began nearly a year ago and only his second confirmed journey outside Ukraine during the war.
Zelenskyy will also meet with King Charles III and U.K. military chiefs during his visit.
The U.K. is one of the biggest military backers of Ukraine and has sent the country more than 2 billion pounds ($2.5 billion) in weapons and equipment.
The visit comes as Sunak announced that Britain will train Ukrainian pilots on “NATO-standard fighter jets.” Ukraine has urged its allies to send jets, though the U.K. says it’s not practical to provide the Ukrainian military with British warplanes.
More than 10,000 Ukrainian troops have also been trained at bases in the U.K., some on the Challenger 2 tanks that Britain is sending.
“I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future,” Sunak said. “It also underlines our commitment to not just provide military equipment for the short term, but a long-term pledge to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine for years to come.”
Zelenskyy addressed the U.K. Parliament remotely in March, two weeks after the start of the invasion. He echoed World War II leader Winston Churchill’s famous “never surrender” speech, vowing that Ukrainians “will fight till the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.”
Before Sunak took office, Zelenskyy had formed a bond with Boris Johnson, who was one of Ukraine’s most vocal backers while he was U.K. prime minister. Sunak took office in October and has pledged to maintain the U.K.’s support.
It will be Zelenskyy’s second known trip visit abroad since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. He visited the U.S. in December.
Zelenskyy may be seeking Western pledges of more advanced weapons before potential spring offensives by both Russia and Ukraine.
In Brussels, there were increasing expectations that the Ukrainian leader might also make his first visit to European Union institutions since the war began.
Leaders from 27-nation bloc will be gathering for a summit in Brussels on Thursday. That would enable Zelenskyy to meet with all major leaders of the bloc in one day. Zelenskyy has often addressed EU summits only through video calls from Ukraine.
The EU’s legislature has also slated a special plenary session in Brussels for Thursday in the hopes that Zelenskyy will come following his trip to Britain.
The London visit came as Russian forces blasted areas of eastern Ukraine with more artillery bombardments, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday, in what Kyiv authorities believe is part of a new thrust by the Kremlin’s forces before the invasion anniversary.
Russian forces over the past day launched major shelling attacks on areas near the front line in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, killing a 74-year-old woman and wounding a 16-year-old girl in the border town of Vovchansk, local Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said.
Russian forces in Ukraine are focusing their efforts on “waging a counteroffensive” in the country’s industrial east, with the aim of taking full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up the Donbas, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said.
Russian troops launched assaults near Bakhmut and Vuhledar, two mining towns in the Donetsk region that have been among Moscow’s key targets, Ukrainian officials said.
Seizing Bakhmut could severely disrupt Ukraine’s military supply routes. It would also open a door for Moscow’s forces to drive toward key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
Ukrainian authorities say the Kremlin’s goal is to complete full control of the Donbas, an expansive industrial area bordering Russia. That would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a major battlefield success after months of setbacks and help him rally public opinion behind the war.
Military analysts say that after a Ukrainian counteroffensive that started last summer and recaptured large areas from Russia, the war has been largely static in recent months.
Russia is now also trying to break through Ukrainian lines near the towns of Avdiivka and Marinka in Donetsk, as well as near Kreminna, a front-line town in the Luhansk region which lies along a key Russian supply route, the Ukrainian General Staff said.
Raf Casert contributed to this report from Brussels.
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