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Ukraine’s Zelensky makes surprise visit to Brussels

08:49 12/10/2023

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky came to Nato headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday to meet member states' defence ministers over a two-day visit.

Zelensky addressed the press upon his arrival alongside Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.

“How to survive this winter is one of the greatest challenges,” Zelensky told reporters.

“We need some kind of support from [Western] leaders. That's why I'm here. It’s important to meet the ministers and their representatives to discuss priorities, how to push Russia out.”

Stoltenberg told Zelensky that “your fight is our fight”.

According to Dutch defence minister Kajsa Ollongren, who announced the visit, a meeting of the F-16 Coalition will take place. Zelensky will also meet Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD).

Belgian defence minister Ludivine Dedonder announced earlier on Wednesday that Belgium would also send F-16s to Ukraine to support the country in the ongoing conflict with Russia.

Belgium has already donated €280 million worth of military equipment, but the fighter jets would be a prize catch for Ukraine.

The country urgently needs high-performance fighter-bombers to confront the Russian army as part of its counter-offensive. Three European Nato members - the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark - have already pledged 60 aircraft, but Ukraine believes it needs twice as many.

The Belgian government initially refused to donate any for operational reasons, but changed its mind a month ago at the request of the MR party, which estimated that Belgium could donate between two and four aircraft.

The government then asked the defence minister to carry out an "objective" analysis of the possibility of donating "a few" F-16s.

With 45 aircraft in flying condition, the Belgian air force is at the limit of its operational capacity while awaiting the arrival of the first F-35s to replace them.

In a best-case scenario, the first two of those could be delivered in May 2024 but would remain in the United States for pilot training. This will also be the case for the next six. The first four F-35s will not arrive in Belgium until early 2025, at Florennes, assuming optimal conditions.

Defence minister Dedonder said a number of Belgian F-16 fighter bombers will be sent to Ukraine from 2025, “depending on the ramp-up of our new F-35 capability”.

In addition to sending fighter jets, Belgium will continue its pilot training efforts and offer to look after the maintenance of the coalition's entire F-16 fleet.

“Belgian personnel will train Ukrainian pilots in Belgium, Denmark and probably in one other European Union country,” said Dedoner.

“For the moment, there is no talk of [sending soldiers to] Ukraine. We are in the process of helping Ukraine to modernise its armed forces. And I think that what we are offering here is fundamental and much better than simply announcing the dispatch of a few F-16s.”

Other topics expected to be discussed during Zelensky’s visit include the levying of taxes on Russian funds frozen at Euroclear to finance humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, and the "Belgian method" for preventing trade in Russian diamonds.

Zelensky visited Brussels on 9 and 10 February this year, giving a speech to the European Parliament.

Photo: Eric Lalmand/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons