British Prime Minister Sunak makes a surprise trip to Kyiv and increases defense aid

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged 125 anti-aircraft guns and other air defense technology when he paid his first unannounced visit to the snow-covered Ukrainian capital for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday.

The air defense package, which Britain has valued at £50 million ($60 million), comes as Russia has been bombing Ukraine’s power grid and other vital infrastructure from the air, causing widespread cold-weather blackouts for millions of Ukrainians.

The package includes radar and other technology to counter the Iran-supplied exploding drones that Russia has deployed against Ukrainian targets. It comes on top of a delivery of more than 1,000 anti-aircraft missiles announced by Britain earlier this month.

Britain is one of the staunchest Western supporters of Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion. Alongside Zelenskyy, Sunak noted that Britain had provided £2.3 billion ($2.7 billion) in military aid and vowed: “We will do the same again next year.”

“Your homes, your hospitals, your power plants will be destroyed,” Sunak said while announcing the new air defense package. “You and your people pay a heavy price in blood.”

Through a translator, Zelenskyy said Russian strikes had damaged about half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

As snowflakes fell, Zelenskyy welcomed Sunak to a presidential palace for their talks. He called the two countries “the strongest allies”. As they walked through the snow, they also inspected captured Russian tanks and other wrecked and rusting military equipment used by the invading forces, on display in a Kiev square.

“With friends like you by our side, we are confident in our victory. Our two nations know what it means to stand up for freedom,” the Ukrainian leader said on Twitter.

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned in July amid ethics scandals, has garnered widespread praise in Ukraine for his support and has made repeated visits to Kyiv. Sunak is keen to reassure Ukraine’s leaders that there will be no change of stance under his leadership, although as Britain’s chief financial officer under Johnson he was seen as opposed to demands for increased defense spending.

“The courage of the Ukrainian people is an inspiration to the world,” Sunak said. “For years to come, we will tell our grandchildren your story.”

He pledged that Britain “will remain with you until Ukraine has gained the peace and security it needs and deserves, and then we will stand by you as you rebuild your great country.”

Sunak also laid flowers at a memorial to the war dead, lit a candle at a memorial to victims of a deadly Soviet-era famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, and met first responders at a fire station, his office said.

Sunak’s visit follows a recent major battlefield success in Ukraine: the recapture of the southern city of Kherson.

The restoration of rail links on Saturday brought further joy to Kherson residents, who eagerly awaited the first train from Kyiv.

“This is the beginning of a new life,” said 74-year-old Ludmila Olhouskaya, who had no one to pick her up from the train but went to the station to show her support. “Or rather, the revival of an earlier one.”

On the battlefield, Russian forces have launched 10 airstrikes, 10 missile strikes and 42 missile strikes on Ukraine over the past day, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces announced on Saturday.

Russia is stepping up an offensive in the eastern Donetsk region and Ukraine has reported heavy fighting around the town of Bakhmut, the town of Avdiivka and the village of Novopavlivka.

Russian forces claimed to have repelled a Ukrainian counter-offensive to retake the settlements of Pershotravneve, Kyslivka and Krokhmalne in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv province.

Ukrainian forces said scores of Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in an attack on the village of Mykhailivka in the southern Kherson region, and the wounded were taken to hospitals in Crimea. The claim could not be independently verified.

Ukrainian forces also reported carrying out deadly attacks on the Kinburn Spit in southern Ukraine’s Mykolaiv province, a key location for Russian electronic warfare.

Russia continued strikes against critical infrastructure, with an overnight missile attack causing a fire at a key industrial facility in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhia region, the region’s chief said. Some parts of the regional capital, Zaporizhia, remained unheated.

The head of Ukraine’s largest private energy company told the BBC that Ukrainians who can afford it should consider leaving the country to take pressure off the war-torn energy system.

“If they can find an alternative place to stay for another three or four months, that will help the system a lot,” said Maxim Timchenko, managing director of DTEK. “If you use less, hospitals with injured soldiers have a guaranteed power supply.”

A funeral was held in Poland on Saturday for one of the two men who died in a rocket landing this week, according to state news agency PAP. A military honor guard and Polish and Ukrainian representatives joined the man’s family and members of the community.

NATO member Poland and the military alliance chief both said the missile attack in an eastern agricultural area appeared to be unintentional and was likely launched by air defenses in neighboring Ukraine. At the time, Russia was bombing Ukraine.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense noted on Saturday that Russia completed its largest ever debt issue in a single day, raising $13.6 billion on Wednesday. Debt issuance is a key mechanism to sustain defense spending, which has increased significantly in Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in February.

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Lawless reported from London. Elise Morton in London and Sam Mednick in Kherson, Ukraine contributed to this story.

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Follow all AP stories about the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.

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