It was a political demand, written on a helmet and wrapped in the emotion of war.
As Volodymyr Zelensky neared the end of his address in the cavernous Westminster Hall, light streaming past him from a vast stained glass window, he gestured to an aide.
The Ukrainian president had just been expressing his delight at an upcoming meeting with King Charles, recalling the monarch’s past training with the RAF.
“In Britain, the King is an air force pilot,” Mr Zelensky had told the crowd. “In Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king for us.”
And then came the reveal – a single white helmet, worn by one of the country’s top fighter pilots in battles against the Russian invasion still raging in Ukraine, one year on from the full invasion.
In scrawled ink was a message: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”
If the significance of the plea, written in English in large lettering, was lost on the audience, Mr Zelensky made it explicit.
“I trust this symbol will help us for our next coalition, coalition of the planes,” he explained.
“And I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words: combat aircraft for Ukraine. Wings for freedom.”
The request’s delivery showed the hallmarks of how Mr Zelensky, the comic turned war hero, has become such an effective communicator and negotiator.
For all the pomp and ceremony of his surprise visit from Ukraine, weeks in the planning under strict secrecy within Downing Street, he was here to deliver a message.
It was one Rishi Sunak could only partly match, opening the door to providing jets in the long term and agreeing to train up Ukrainian pilots in the UK, but not yet saying yes to sending planes.
Simply the existence of the trip, however, was something of a triumph for the Prime Minister, who is still finding his way on the international stage three months into his leadership.
Only America had enjoyed an overseas visit from the Ukrainian president since the Russian invasion last February.
That beat Brussels, where Mr Zelensky heads next – a visit which, unlike his trip to London, long ago leaked to the media.
News of the arrival broke shortly before 9am on Wednesday, soon topping the news broadcasts.
Downing Street officials declined to give details about how he was transported out of Ukraine, though he touched down on British soil in an RAF C-17 aircraft.
Mr Sunak was there for the 10.22am arrival at Stansted Airport – an executive welcome, clinched with a hug, not normally offered to foreign leaders. It was a sign of the trip’s special significance.
From there, the leaders rode in a motorcade – which included half a dozen motorbike outriders – before pulling into Downing Street and striding together through the Number 10 black door.
Mr Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, then gave Mr Zelensky breakfast in their Downing Street flat, with officials largely not present – another proof point for the visit’s importance, given the informal setting.
A photographer did capture the moment. The Prime Minister, dressed in a perfectly pressed suit, offering Mr Zelensky, grinning in an army green sweatshirt, something in a jug. A continental spread had been offered up – orange juice, pastries, granola and mini bagels.
Come noon, there was a break in proceedings as Mr Sunak delivered what would normally be the highlight of the parliamentary day – his Prime Minister’s Questions clash with Sir Keir Starmer. But the exchanges, Ukraine-dominated, were dwarfed by the main event.
Queues for Mr Zelensky’s address in Westminster Hall – a magnificent space of stone pavings and tall wooden arches which dates back to the 11th century, making it the oldest part of Parliament – had started at least 90 minutes beforehand.
Word had spread, with everyone on the parliamentary estate welcome to attend, if there was space. Former Cabinet ministers scrambled to cancel meetings.
Come 1pm, more than 500 MPs, peers, advisers, Palace of Westminster staff and journalists had crammed into the room.
Not for a decade had a foreign leader used this space to deliver a speech. Many of those there huddled in winter coats, the temperature in the single degrees centigrade.
And then came the entrance. Mr Zelensky arrived to whoops and applause, slipping in through a side door with Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lord McFall of Alcluith, respectively the speakers for the House of Commons and House of Lords.
Walking up the hall’s stone steps, the figures turned and stood, taking in the applause as the light streamed in behind them.
Seats and a lectern had been set up on a spot heavy with history. It was where Nelson Mandela had addressed Parliament – and where King Charles I had sat for the trial that sentenced him to death.
Sir Lindsay, the MP for Chorley, was up first, reminding Mr Zelensky in his broad Lancastrian accent about their first meeting during the Covid pandemic, and the English customs they shared.
“We hit it off immediately, with much laughter over an English afternoon tea and, of course, Chorley cakes,” said the Commons Speaker.
And then came Mr Zelensky, welcomed by another wave of warmth. “Slava Ukraini!” shouted someone in the crowd – a declaration of support hollered often throughout his address.
The Ukrainian president described visiting Winston Churchill’s War Rooms below Whitehall during a past visit to London and the impact sitting in the former prime minister’s chair had on his psyche.
“A guide smiled and offered me to sit down on this armchair from which war orders have been given, and he asked me how did they feel?” recalled Mr Zelensky.
“And I said that I suddenly felt something. But it is only now that I know what the feeling was.
“And all Ukrainians know it perfectly well too. It is a feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory.”
The speech was delivered in English. There was praise for Boris Johnson: “Boris – you got others united when it seemed absolutely, absolutely impossible. Thank you.”
Mr Sunak got a mention too. Liz Truss, whose premiership lasted just 49 days, went unmentioned.
Mr Zelensky framed the struggle with Russia in apocalyptic terms.
Harking back to the UK and Ukraine’s past fighting tyrannies in the Second World War and the Cold War, Mr Zelensky cast both countries as being on the side of good.
“We will always come out on top of evil. This lies at the core of our, but also your, traditions,” Mr Zelensky said.
“However, the horizon never stays clear for a while. Once the old evil is defeated, the new one is attempting to rise its head.
“Do you have a feeling that the evil will crumble once again? I can see in your eyes now, we think the same way as you do. We know freedom will win. We know Russia will lose.
“And we really know that the victory will change the world and this will be a change that the world has long needed.”
After the speech – cue more rapturous applause – Mr Zelensky bounced down the steps towards the VIPs in the front row for handshakes.
Ms Truss was there and shared a few words. So too was Mr Johnson, greeted with a handshake rather than a hug.
After Parliament, it was time for the monarch. Mr Zelensky had a special audience with King Charles, before heading to Dorset to see first hand the UK training of Ukrainian soldiers to take on the menace of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Footage showed the Ukrainian leader taking salutes from Ukrainian soldiers dressed in camouflage. Mr Sunak was again by his side – the message Downing Street hopes is projected across the world, especially in the Kremlin.
And finally, a press conference. Mr Zelensky and Mr Sunak together again. But between them was that message on the helmet: “Give us wings.”
The Prime Minister has opened the door to sending planes – but the plea, for now, remains unmet.
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