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Zelenskyy optimistic Ukraine will get European fighter jets

GreenWatch Desk Conflicts 2023-02-10, 10:51pm

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy had a few key asks on his European tour this week. On one — a call for allies to send fighter jets — he claimed to see progress, but had little to show on the spot.

Brussels may have been the third stop on Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy's European tour but that didn't damper the excitement in the EU's capital on Thursday, reports DW.

The red carpet was rolled out in the European Parliament and crowds of staff lined the spiral staircase leading from the VIP entrance up to the chamber of the house, all hoping to get a glimpse of Zelenskyy — in town for an EU summit — and snap a picture on their phone.

Every now and then a shout of "Slava Ukraini" (Glory to Ukraine) emanated from somewhere in the crowd and Zelenskyy was welcomed warmly by a beaming European Parliament President Roberta Metsola before he addressed a rapt crowd of EU parliamentarians. 

"A Ukraine that is winning is going to be a member of the European Union," Zelenskyy said to applause. It was only his second foreign trip since Russia launched a full-scale invasion on his country almost one year ago.

Smiles all round

The mood was similarly buoyant in the European Council buildings, where EU leaders congregated for talks on the increasingly tense question of migration management, and on the bloc's response to the US green spending spree, the Inflation Reduction Act.

EU leaders and top officials stand in a line-up ahead of summit talks including Ukrainian President Volodomyr ZelenskyyEU leaders and top officials stand in a line-up ahead of summit talks including Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy

Zelenskyy stood out among EU leaders for the photo, but clearly felt at homeImage: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

But Zelenskyy's visit, news of which had leaked earlier in the week, undoubtedly stole the show on Thursday.

Dressed in a black sweatshirt, combat trousers and sturdy boots, Zelenskyy stood out among the sharp tailoring and formal attire of other leaders when posing in the traditional pre-summit line-up photo.

He certainly got a warm welcome, ample ceremony and pomp — not to mention the photo opportunities. But did he actually get what he came for?

The Ukrainian president's main messages in London, Paris and Brussels were pleas for long-range missiles and fighter jets to beef up his armed forces, and (to the EU) the necessity of rapid entry into the bloc.

In London on Wednesday, he made progress, with British promises to train Ukrainian pilots to fly NATO-standard aircraft. Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, Zelenskyy also said there had been movement towards a solution on the question of long-range missiles.

Zelenskyy also indicated to reporters that European allies would provide fighter jets, but made no concrete announcements. "Europe will be with us until our victory. I've heard it from a number of European leaders... about the readiness to give us the necessary weapons and support, including the aircraft," he said at a press conference.

In addition, Zelenskyy hinted that decisions had been made in both London and Paris (where he met French President Emmanuel Macron as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz) that could not yet be announced. 

Whether this is spin or whether a deal on jets will soon materialise remains to be seen. No major announcements were made by EU leaders themselves.

Kyiv has been lobbying its Western allies for modern warplanes in recent weeks. The US and many European countries have been heavily arming Ukraine since the outbreak of the war but most are concerned that supplying planes and missiles could escalate or even expand the conflict by equipping Kyiv to strike deep inside Russian territory. Moscow certainly sees the move as provocative.

Bruno Lete, a fellow from the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, told DW he believed that Kyiv would soon get its hands on the fighter jets it wants despite misgivings among allies. "Red lines are a purely political concept, and they adapt to the reality of battlefields," he said.

Cold water on speedy EU membership hopes

Where Zelenskyy looks set to go home empty-handed is on EU accession. Standing alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, Zelenskyy said he wanted the bloc to open formal negotiations this year already, and that this was a question of morale for the armed forces.

Von der Leyen said only that there was "no rigid timeline" for accession, and that it was "a merits-based process," depending on how quickly a candidate could enact the necessary reforms.

No short cut into the EU

Ukraine was named an EU candidate country last year, but few in Brussels – Lete included - believe there is any chance of Kyiv joining very soon.

EU accession is a highly complex process, typically taking years or even decades of often difficult reform. A long-standing concern in Ukraine is corruption. Allowing Kyiv to queue-jump into the EU would likely anger other candidates.

"I don't think there will be any further enlargement of the EU before there are reforms," Lete said. Germany has made it clear it wants treaty change first, he pointed out.

"Ukraine is huge. It's 40 million people," Lete said. Kyiv joining would "fundamentally alter the power structures in the EU. Think about the seats in the European Parliament big countries will have to give up. Think about something like EU subsidies to agriculture." Big recipients like France or Poland would have to give some of their share to farming-heavy Ukraine, he said. "It's really about power and money."

Zelenskyy knows accession won't happen so quickly, Lete said, but pushing harder on accession means Ukraine could get a good deal on trade and single market access. "In politics, you have to ask for the maximum in order to get the thing in the middle."