The Netherlands and Denmark said Sunday that they would donate F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine — the first countries to do so — in what President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said was a breakthrough in his nation’s quest to acquire the aircraft considered imperative in the war against Russia.
The procurement of American-made F-16’s to supplement a fleet of Soviet-era jets has been a priority for Mr. Zelensky’s government for months as it seeks advantage over Russia’s air force and also to improve its own air defenses. Ukrainian officials acknowledged last week, however, that NATO countries would not donate the planes before next year, which is too late for use in a counteroffensive the government in Kyiv launched this summer.
President Biden, setting aside months of resistance, said in May that NATO countries could train Ukrainian pilots on F-16’s, and on Thursday a U.S. official said that the United States would allow allies to send the jets.
Speaking during a visit to the Netherlands, Mr. Zelensky said that the Netherlands would donate 42 jets once Ukrainian pilots and engineers had been trained. He also visited Denmark on Sunday and was in Sweden on Saturday, where aircraft were also on the agenda.
“A breakthrough agreement. From today, there are already specifics. They will be in the Ukrainian sky. Thank you, Netherlands,” he said on the Telegram social messaging app. “The planes we will use to keep Russian terrorists away from Ukrainian cities and villages.”
He posted a selfie taken with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands standing in front of one of the jets but gave few specifics about the next step in the process. In what appeared to be a coordinated move, Denmark’s Defense Ministry said Sunday in a statement that it would donate 19 F-16’s to Ukraine.
F-16’s would enhance the country’s ground-launched air defenses, which are used to fight off Russian missile attacks and could also act as a deterrent to Moscow in the longer term because they could erase its aerial superiority.
For now, Ukraine is pressing ahead with its counteroffensive, launched in June, in the absence of the jets, which some military analysts say could have enabled it to deploy large-scale coordinated battle tactics used by NATO countries and taught to Ukrainian troops by its allies.
Amid heavy fighting in the counteroffensive, Ukraine has recaptured some villages and regained some territory in its south and east, but it has yet to make a decisive breach of Moscow’s lines in the face of stiff Russian resistance, stoutly defended barriers and numerous minefields.
Asked about the pace of the counteroffensive, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, called for caution in making assessments and emphasized the need for allies to deliver more military aid.
“What we really need are more long-term capabilities for achieving more short-term results,” he said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild.
Ukraine is also pushing to obtain Swedish Gripen warplanes, and Mr. Zelensky said during a visit to Sweden this weekend that it was “getting closer” to obtaining them. He also reached a more tangible agreement on Saturday involving the supply of armored vehicles.
Sweden has so far refused to send Gripens to Ukraine, with officials saying that the jets — built by Saab — are needed to defend its own borders. Russia’s invasion prompted Sweden, and neighboring Finland, to apply to join NATO. Finland has since become a member of the alliance, but Sweden’s application has been held up by Turkey.
Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden did not mention the combat planes during a news conference with Mr. Zelensky on Saturday. Ukraine has received Soviet-era jets from Poland and Slovakia.
On Saturday, Sweden and Ukraine announced a preliminary agreement covering production, repair and training for Sweden’s CV90 infantry fighting vehicle. So far in the war, Mr. Kristersson said, Sweden has given 2.2 billion euros, or about $2.4 billion, in aid to Ukraine, including the CV90s, Leopard tanks, Archer artillery systems and mine-clearing equipment.
“No task is more important than supporting Ukraine in its fight for freedom and territorial integrity,” Mr. Kristersson, the Swedish leader, said. “Ukraine is fighting for us, for all European democracies.”
Almost 18 months after Russia’s full-scale invasion began, issues of military production and supply are becoming increasingly important to debates about the war’s eventual outcome. They form a backdrop to Ukraine’s attempts to reclaim land and Moscow’s relentless bombardment of civilian areas close to the front lines.
Russia accused Ukraine on Sunday of launching a series of drone attacks, including one that slightly wounded five people and another that forced airports in Moscow to close briefly, hours after Mr. Zelensky vowed a military response to a Russian missile strike that killed seven people.
There was no immediate comment from Ukraine’s military about the reported drone attacks in Russia. While Ukrainian officials typically do not claim responsibility for attacks on Russian soil, Mr. Zelensky has suggested in recent weeks that the strikes are part of his government’s strategy.
Evidence suggests that the government in Kyiv has increasingly deployed drones, including a model capable of flying hundreds of miles.
In recent weeks, drones have struck military and infrastructure targets, adding another dimension to the counteroffensive launched in June. The attacks also appear to aim to carry back to Russia some of the pain caused by Moscow’s relentless attacks on Ukrainian civilians.
Nearly 9,500 Ukrainian civilians have been killed since the Kremlin invasion in February 2022, according to United Nations data, a figure that dwarfs Russian civilian casualties.
This weekend a Ukrainian drone struck the roof of the train station in the Russian city of Kursk, according to the official in charge of the region, which borders northeastern Ukraine. The regional governor, Roman Starovoit, said on the Telegram messaging app that three people had been taken to the hospital but that they had been discharged.
Russian forces in the Rostov region, which borders eastern Ukraine, thwarted a drone attack, according to Tass, the state news agency, which quoted the regional governor, Vasily Golubev.
Also on Sunday, Russia’s aviation watchdog said it had briefly halted flights to Moscow’s Vnukovo and Domodedovo airports in response to attempted drone attacks, according to Reuters.
“The leadership of Russia’s Aerospace Forces is highly likely under intense pressure to improve air defenses over western Russia,” said a report on Sunday by Britain’s defense intelligence agency. “In recent months, the range of threats penetrating well inside Russia has increased.”
There was no explicit link between the strikes and Mr. Zelensky’s comments in which he vowed to respond to a Russian attack on Saturday on the city of Chernihiv, about 80 miles northeast of the capital, Kyiv. A 6-year-old named Sofia died in the attack, along with six others, and 144 people were wounded, including 15 children, he said.
“The missile just hit the center of the city,” he said in an overnight speech. “I am sure our soldiers will respond to Russia for this terrorist attack. Respond tangibly.”
The missiles struck the Taras Shevchenko Theater in the city, where businesspeople and volunteers had been meeting, according to the head of the regional military administration, Viacheslav Chaus, who wrote on Telegram. The theater had been hosting an exhibition on drones at the time of the attack, according to Maria Berlinska, a co-organizer of the exhibition, in a post on Facebook.