Key developments on May 19:
- Zelensky arrives in Saudi Arabia, meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
- Zelensky expected at Hiroshima G7 Summit after Saudi Arabia
- Ukraine's military confirms gaining initiative near Bakhmut, makes further advances
- NBC: US, allies plan to supply Ukraine with F-16 jets, official says
President Volodymyr Zelensky, on May 19, made his first-ever visit to Saudi Arabia, where he called on Arab leaders – many of whom remain neutral or hold close ties with Moscow – to support his peace plan to end Russia's brutal all-out war.
Speaking at the annual Arab League summit in the city of Jeddah, Zelensky underscored the importance of cooperating together to free Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who are held in Russian captivity.
"We have a positive experience with Saudi Arabia on the release of our people captured by Russia," Zelensky said, referring to a major prisoner swap in September 2022 involving 215 people, which the president said was reached with Turkey and Saudi Arabia's help.
During his visit, Zelensky met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, adding that the kingdom must play an important role in helping Ukraine return home prisoners of war.
At the May 19 summit, where Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was allowed to attend for the first time since 2011, Zelensky said, "I hope that most of us are here for the sake of peace and justice."
Zelensky's surprise visit to Saudi Arabia comes after the president's tour of European capitals, where he called for support to create a fighter jet coalition. In a few days, Zelensky visited Rome, Berlin, Paris, and London, meeting leaders of each country.
After Jeddah, Zelensky is expected to attend the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan. The three-day summit will last until May 21.
Ukrainian forces were once again able to advance up to 500 meters in some areas over the past day, Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military's Eastern Operational Command, said on May 19.
Speaking on television, Cherevatyi said that Ukraine is "seizing" the battlefield initiative and using the opportunity to launch counterattacks near Bakhmut, even as Russia concentrates all of its efforts to finally capture the destroyed city.
The Ukrainian military's report comes as Ukraine appears to be gaining ground on some flanks of Bakhmut.
Earlier, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar reported that Ukrainian forces control the southwestern part of Bakhmut, and the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade reported marginal gains in the city's western outskirts.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a D.C.-based think-tank analyzing the war in Ukraine, confirmed Ukraine seizing "the tactical initiative" and making "tactically significant gains" near Bakhmut on May 18.
But within the city, Ukrainian authorities reported Russia – led by the brutal Wagner mercenaries – is continuing to make limited gains.
Ukraine to receive F-16 jets
The U.S. and its allies plan to supply Ukraine with U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, but the time frame and which countries would provide them are still unclear, a senior White House official told NBC News.
The official told NBC News on May 19 that the decision on the quantity of jets that Ukraine would receive, who would provide them, and the timeframe would be made in the coming months.
The report of Washington’s possible shift in its stance regarding the F-16s comes as U.S. President Joe Biden shifts to support an international fighter jet coalition. Earlier, the U.K. and the Netherlands agreed to build an international coalition to help procure F-16s for Ukraine.
Biden also told G7 leaders at the Hiroshima Summit that the U.S. will support a joint initiative to train Ukrainian pilots on modern fighter jets, including F-16s, CNN reported, citing a senior U.S. official.
Several European nations, including the Netherlands, possess F-16s, but the U.S. would need to approve the third-party transfer given the sensitive U.S. technology incorporated in the aircraft.