The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania have met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to drive home a message of support that Kyiv hopes will lead to more weapons supplies and tougher sanctions on Russia.
In the first such visit to the Ukrainian capital since Russia unleashed its invasion, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Italy’s Mario Draghi and Romania’s Klaus Iohannis also gave qualified support for Kyiv’s bid to join the European Union on Thursday.
After earlier batting away suggestions of being soft on Russia, Macron said the West would not demand any concessions from Ukraine and that the circumstances of peace talks would be on Kyiv’s terms.
Zelenskyy, who has not left Ukraine since the invasion and was dressed in a khaki t-shirt, has voiced gratitude for the West’s help, though his administration also previously berated allies for dragging their feet on sanctions and arms supplies.
“My colleagues and I came here to Kyiv today with a clear message: ‘Ukraine belongs to the European family,'” Scholz said, while Macron said, “We all four support the immediate EU candidate status” for Ukraine.
For his part, Draghi said: “The most important message of our visit is that Italy wants Ukraine in the EU.”
And it wants Ukraine to have candidate status and will support this position at the next European Council.”
More heavy weapons
Ukraine has asked for more weapons to turn the tide of the war decisively in its favour after enduring losses of 100-200 soldiers a day in a fierce battle for control of its eastern Donbas region. EU leaders, meanwhile, have grappled with keeping domestic opinion onside as the economic costs of the war and rising prices hit home.
“We appreciate the support already provided by partners, we expect new deliveries, primarily heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery, anti-missile defence systems,” Zelenskyy said.
“Every day of delay or delayed decisions is an opportunity for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians or destroy our cities,” he said. “There is a direct correlation: the more powerful weapons we get, the faster we can liberate our people, our land.”
During the talks, Zelenskyy pressed for a seventh EU sanctions package that includes an embargo on Russian gas. The visit coincided with Russia reducing supplies via its Nord Stream pipeline in what Berlin saw as a political move.
Scholz said Germany would support Ukraine’s path to EU membership – a step that has caused some misgivings in the 27-member bloc. But he also said requirements on democracy and rule of law would need to be complied with.
Although many key European nations view such aspirations as favourable, they have warned that membership could take years or even decades.
“This status will be accompanied by a roadmap and will also involve taking into account the situation in the Balkans and the neighbouring area, notably Moldova,” said Macron.
France holds the rotating presidency of the EU until the end of this month.
Arriving on a night train as air raid sirens blared in Kyiv, the EU leaders had first walked around ruined buildings and wrecked cars in the nearby town of Irpin, the scene of heavy fighting early in the invasion.
The Irpin tour was designed to highlight what Ukraine and its backers have said were large-scale atrocities committed by Russian troops and Scholz described it as a scene of “unimaginable cruelty” and “senseless violence”.
The Italian prime minister called it a “place of massacres committed by the Russian army”, which he condemned “without hesitation”, adding that international investigations into potential war crimes had his full support.
Standing by gutted, burned-out buildings, the leaders looked stern as they listened to a Ukrainian minister explaining what had happened there.
They were shown the wreckage of a car which Ukraine says was targeted by Russian troops when a mother and children were inside. Russia denied allegations that its forces committed atrocities.
“It’s a heroic city … marked by the stigma of barbarism,” Macron told reporters.
Commenting on the visit, the Kremlin said the leaders should use their time with Zelenskyy to take a “realistic look at the state of affairs” rather than discussing more arms shipments to Kyiv.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, mocked the visit as having “zero use” and having “promised EU membership and old howitzers to Ukraine”.