Biden backs F-16 training for Ukrainian pilots at G7 meeting

US president tells leaders decisions on providing the fighter jets for use in battle will be made when the training is underway

A US Air National Guard F-16 during an exercise in Oklahoma, February 26, 2020. (US Air National Guard/Master Sgt. C.T. Michael)
A US Air National Guard F-16 during an exercise in Oklahoma, February 26, 2020. (US Air National Guard/Master Sgt. C.T. Michael)

HIROSHIMA, Japan (AP) — US President Joe Biden on Friday endorsed plans to train Ukrainian pilots on US-made F-16 fighter jets, according to two people familiar with the matter, as he huddled with leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies on plans to toughen punishments on Russia for its 15-month invasion of Ukraine.

The Group of Seven leaders were convening in Hiroshima, where President Volodymyr Zelensky is to join them on Sunday in his farthest trip from his country since the war began last February.

The leaders heard for the first time of Biden’s backing of training Ukrainian pilots on advanced fighter jets, as a precursor to sending the jets to Ukraine.

The G7 leaders also set out new sanctions on Moscow as well as plans to enhance the effectiveness of existing financial penalties meant to constrain President Vladimir Putin’s war effort.

“Our support for Ukraine will not waver,” the G7 leaders said in a statement released after closed-door meetings. The vowed “to stand together against Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.”

“Russia started this war and can end this war,” they said.

The F-16 training is to be conducted in Europe and will likely begin in the coming weeks. But Biden told the leaders that decisions on when, how many, and who will provide the fourth-generation fighter jets for Ukraine to use in battle will be made in the months ahead while the training is underway.

US President Joe Biden (left) walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral on a surprise visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, February 20, 2023. (AP/Evan Vucci)

That’s according to the sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Biden’s private conversations with allies.

Zelensky has consistently called for the supply of Western fighter jets to bolster his country’s defenses against Russia’s invasion, but has until now faced skepticism from the US that they would turn the tide in the war. Now, as Ukraine has bolstered its air defenses with a host of Western-supplied anti-aircraft systems, officials believe the jets could become useful in the battle and essential to the country’s long-term security.

Separately, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, confirmed on national television that Zelensky would attend the summit.

“We were sure that our president would be where Ukraine needed him, in any part of the world, to solve the issue of stability of our country,” Danilov said Friday. “There will be very important matters decided there, so physical presence is a crucial thing to defend our interests.”

Zelensky announced Friday that he had opened a visit to Saudi Arabia, where Arab leaders were holding their own summit.

European allies in recent weeks have warmed to the notion of sending fighter jets to Ukraine, as have elements of Biden’s Cabinet, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has emerged as a staunch advocate within the administration. Under export licensing rules, the US needed to sign off on any allied effort to train Ukrainian pilots or to provide them with the jets.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a media conference during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, April 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The announcement Friday came as the US and its allies also announced a series of actions meant to tighten restrictions on already-sanctioned people and firms involved in Russia’s war effort. More than 125 individuals and organizations across 20 countries were hit with US sanctions. The financial penalties were primarily focused on sanctions evaders connected to technology procurement for the Kremlin. The Commerce Department also added 71 firms to its own list.

Additionally, new reporting requirements were issued for people and firms that have any interest in Russian Central Bank assets. The purpose is to “fully map holdings of Russia’s sovereign assets that will remain immobilized in G7 jurisdictions until Russia pays for the damage it has caused to Ukraine,” a Treasury statement reads.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the Friday sanctions “will further tighten the vise on Putin’s ability to wage his barbaric invasion and will advance our global efforts to cut off Russian attempts to evade sanctions.”

Putin’s nuclear threats against Ukraine, along with North Korea ’s months-long barrage of missile tests and China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal, have resonated with Japan’s push to make nuclear disarmament a major part of the G7 summit. World leaders Friday visited a peace park dedicated to the tens of thousands who died in the world’s first wartime atomic bomb detonation.

After group photos near the city’s iconic bombed-out dome, a wreath-laying and a symbolic cherry tree planting, a new round of sanctions were unveiled against Moscow, with a focus on redoubling efforts to enforce existing sanctions meant to stifle Russia’s war effort and hold accountable those behind it, a US official said. Russia is now the most-sanctioned country in the world, but there are questions about the effectiveness of the financial penalties.

The G7 nations said in Friday’s statement that they would work to keep Russia from using the international financial system to prosecute its war, would “further restrict Russia’s access to our economies” and would prevent sanctions evasion by Moscow.

They urged other nations to stop providing Russia with support and weapons “or face severe costs.”

The European Union was focused on closing loopholes and plans to restrict trade in Russian diamonds, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, told reporters Friday.

The US plans to expand its sanctions authorities on Russian architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, and transportation firms, according to Treasury.

The UK also announced new sanctions that freeze the assets of 86 people and organizations connected to Russia’s energy, metals, defense, transport and financial sectors.

“We need to give Ukraine the tools now to successfully defend itself and regain full sovereignty and territorial integrity. We should provide Ukraine the necessary military and financial support. And we have to do this as long as it takes,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents Hiroshima in parliament, wants nuclear disarmament to be a major focus of discussions, and he formally started the summit at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. The visit by world leaders to a park dedicated to preserving reminders of Aug. 6, 1945, when a US B-29 dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, provided a striking backdrop to the start the summit. An estimated 140,000 people were killed in the attack, and a fast-dwindling number of now-elderly survivors have ensured that Hiroshima has become synonymous with anti-nuclear peace efforts.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a memorial service marking the 77th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat, at the Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo, August 15, 2022. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Pool Photo via AP)

“Honestly, I have big doubts if Mr. Kishida, who is pursuing a military buildup and seeking to revise the pacifist constitution, can really discuss nuclear disarmament,” Sueichi Kido, a 83-year-old “hibakusha” or survivor of the Nagasaki explosion, told The Associated Press. “But because they are meeting in Hiroshima I do have a sliver of hope that they will have positive talks and make a tiny step toward nuclear disarmament.”

Biden, who scrapped plans to travel on to Papua New Guinea and Australia after his stay in Japan so that he can get back to debt limit talks in Washington, arranged to meet Saturday on the G-7 sidelines with leaders of the so-called Quad partnership, made up of Japan, Australia, India and the US

The four originally had been scheduled to meet in Australia as part of Biden’s effort to revitalize relationships in the Indo-Pacific.

As G7 attendees made their way to Hiroshima, Moscow unleashed yet another aerial attack on the Ukrainian capital. Loud explosions thundered through Kyiv during the early hours, marking the ninth time this month that Russian air raids have targeted the city after weeks of relative quiet.

The United States has frozen Russian Central Bank funds, restricted banks’ access to SWIFT – the dominant system for global financial transactions – and sanctioned thousands of Russian firms, government officials, oligarchs and their families.

The Group of Seven nations collectively imposed a $60 per-barrel price cap on Russian oil and diesel last year, which the US Treasury Department on Thursday defended in a new progress report, stating that the cap has been successful in suppressing Russian oil revenues. Treasury cites Russian Ministry of Finance data showing that the Kremlin’s oil revenues from January to March this year were more than 40% lower than last year.

The economic impact of sanctions depends largely on the extent to which a targeted country is able to circumvent them, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. So for the past month, US Treasury officials have traveled across Europe and Central Asia to press countries that still do business with the Kremlin to cut their financial ties.

“The challenge is to make sure the sanctions are painful against Russia, not against ourselves,” said Michel. “It’s very clear that each package is more difficult than the previous one and requires more political effort to make a decision.”

G7 leaders and invited guests from several other counties are also expected to discuss how to deal with China’s growing assertiveness and military buildup as concerns rise that it could could try to seize Taiwan by force, sparking a wider conflict. China claims the self-governing island as its own and its ships and warplanes regularly patrol near it.

In a bit of dueling diplomacy, Chinese President Xi Jinping is hosting the leaders of the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for a two-day summit in the Chinese city of Xi’an.

The leaders are due to discuss efforts to strengthen the global economy and address rising prices that are squeezing families and government budgets around the world, particularly in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The G7 includes Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada and Italy, as well as the European Union.

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