The leaders of Germany, France and Italy, all criticized in the past by Kyiv for support viewed as too cautious, visited Ukraine on Thursday and offered the hope of EU membership to a country pleading for weapons to fend off Russia’s invasion.
“It’s a message of unity we’re sending to the Ukrainians,” French President Emmanuel Macron said after pulling into Kyiv on an overnight train along with Germany’s Olaf Scholz and Italy’s Mario Draghi. They were joined by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
Macron later said all four leaders supported the idea of granting “immediate” European Union candidate status to Ukraine, adding that France would step up arms deliveries to Kyiv.
Scholz said Germany had taken in 800,000 Ukrainian refugees who had fled the conflict and would continue to support Ukraine as long as it needs.
“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” he said, after talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the other leaders.
On the battlefield, Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out against massive Russian bombardment in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, and described new progress in a counteroffensive in the south.
But they said battles on both main fronts depended on receiving more aid from the West, especially artillery to counter Russia’s big advantage in firepower.
Air raid sirens had blared in Kyiv as the European leaders’ visit got under way. They toured Irpin, a town northeast of the capital devastated early in the war, where withdrawing Russian forces left behind bodies littering the streets.
Noting graffiti on a wall that read “Make Europe, not war,” Macron said: “It’s very moving to see that. This is the right message.”
The visit had taken weeks to organize, while the three most powerful EU leaders all fended off criticism over positions described as too deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Critics compared Macron and Scholz to Britain’s Boris Johnson, who visited Kyiv more than two months ago.
NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels were also expected to promises more weapons for Kyiv. U.S. President Joe Biden pledged $1-billion worth of new aid on Wednesday, including anti-ship rocket systems, artillery rockets and rounds for howitzers.
MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS
Scholz, Macron and Draghi all say they are strong supporters of Ukraine who have taken practical steps to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and find weapons to help Kyiv.
But Ukraine has long criticized Scholz over what it regards as Germany’s slow delivery of weapons and reluctance to sever economic ties with Moscow, and was furious this month at Macron for saying in an interview that Russia must not be “humiliated.”
Italy has also proposed a peace plan, which Ukrainians fear could lead to pressure on them to give up territory.
“They will say that we need to end the war that is causing food problems and economic problems … that we need to save Mr Putin’s face,” Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky, told German newspaper Bild prior to the visit.
The war has caused global economic disruption and surging prices for food and energy, forcing central banks around the world to jack up borrowing costs even while their economies stumble.
Despite sanctions, Europe still depends on Russia for natural gas. Deliveries through a major pipeline to Germany have declined in recent days, raising concern about storing supplies for winter, with Moscow blaming sanctions that have held up delivery of equipment sent abroad for repair.
Ukraine is taking hundreds of casualties a day as the war has entered a brutal attritional phase in the east.
After Moscow launched its “special military operation” claiming its aim was to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour, Ukraine repelled an armoured assault on Kyiv in March.
Since then, however, Russia has shifted its aims and tactics, now trying to seize more ground in the east with advances behind massive artillery bombardments, and fortify its grip over captured territory in the south.
The main battle in recent weeks has been over the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, where Ukrainian forces are holed up in a chemical factory with hundreds of civilians. They ignored a Russian order to surrender on Wednesday.
“Every day it becomes more and more difficult because the Russians are pulling more and more weapons into the city, and trying to storm it from several directions,” Sievierodonetsk mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on Thursday.
All remaining bridges linking the city with Ukrainian-held territory on the opposite bank of Siverskyi Donets river were destroyed in recent days, but Ukrainian officials say the garrison is still not completely cut-off.
An air strike on Thursday hit a building sheltering civilians in Lysychansk across the river, killing at least three and wounding at least seven, regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.
In the south, Ukraine says its forces have been making inroads into Kherson province, which Russia occupied early in its invasion. There has been little independent reporting to confirm battlefield positions in the area.
Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, tweeted that he had visited an area just 3-4 km from Russian positions, where dozens of “ghost villages” were depopulated by the combat.
“Our guys on the ground – the mood is fighting. Even with limited resources, we are pushing back the enemy. One thing is missing – long-range weapons. In any case, we will throw them out of the south,” he wrote.
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