Leaders from four European Union countries traveled to Ukraine today, pledging to support Kyiv’s bid to become an official candidate to join the bloc in a high-profile show of support for the country repelling a Russian invasion.
French President Emmanuel Macron has also promised Ukraine six more powerful truck-mounted artillery guns, the latest in a new round of Western arms pledges for Ukraine as the war continues in the eastern region. of Donbass.
The leaders “are doing everything so that only Ukraine can decide its fate”, Macron told a press conference.
Faced with fears in Kyiv that the Western will to help it is weakening, the visit of Macron and the leaders of Germany, Italy and Romania carried a heavy symbolic weight.
The three Western European powers have been criticized for continuing to engage Russian President Vladimir Putin – and for not providing Ukraine with the scale of weapons it deemed necessary to repel the Russians. The Romanian president also made the trip.
After arriving in Kyiv to the sound of air raid sirens, the leaders headed for Irpin, a suburb of the capital that saw heavy fighting early in the war and where scores of civilians were killed. They denounced the destruction there.
As shocking images of such devastation rallied Western support, Ukrainian officials expressed concern that “war fatigue” could eventually erode it – especially as rising prices and upcoming elections in the United States increasingly dominate people’s concerns.
The United States and its European allies have donated billions of dollars in arms to Ukraine, and Germany and the United States recently announced new arms shipments.
These weapons have been key to the country’s surprising success in preventing the Russians from taking the capital, but officials in Kyiv have said many more are needed if they are to drive the forces out of Moscow.
Many in Ukraine hoped the leaders’ visit could mark a turning point in paving the way for major new arms supplies and it also comes as EU leaders prepare to take a decision next week on the request for Ukraine to become a candidate for membership in the bloc.
European allies have sent increasingly heavy guns and sided with Ukraine more than expected, approving wave after wave of unprecedented sanctions against Russia that are severely squeezing the European economy.
But the Ukrainians say more is needed as Russian forces continue their offensive in the eastern Donbas region, slowly but surely gaining ground on undermanned and underarmed Ukrainian forces.
While hopes were high for the visit, there was also skepticism.
Governor Serhiy Haidai of Luhansk, which is also part of Donbass, said the visit would not lead to progress if the leaders asked Ukraine to sign a peace treaty with Russia that involves giving up territory.
“I am sure that our president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is not going to make concessions and exchange our territories. If someone wants to stop Russia by giving them territories, Germany has Bavaria, Italy has Tuscany, the French can concede Provence, for example,” he said.
“Today it will be one territory, tomorrow another, the day after tomorrow another,” he said.
During his visit to Irpin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz observed that officials must bear in mind the destruction of the gruesome scenes in all their decisions.
“Innocent civilians were hit, houses were destroyed; an entire town was destroyed in which there was no military infrastructure,” Scholz said. “And that says a lot about the brutality of the Russian aggressive war, which is simply meant for destruction and conquest. We have to keep that in mind in everything we decide.”
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said during Irpin’s tour that Ukraine’s backers would rebuild “everything” with European help.
“They have destroyed nurseries, playgrounds and everything will be rebuilt,” said Mr Draghi.
Mr. Macron, Mr. Scholz and Mr. Draghi, representing the European Union’s three largest economies, traveled together to Kyiv on a special overnight train provided by the Ukrainian authorities.
They were criticized for not visiting Kyiv earlier. A number of other European leaders have already made the long journey overland to show their solidarity with a nation under attack, even at a time when fighting raged closer to the capital than it does today.
President Klaus Iohannis of Romania, which borders Ukraine and has been a key destination for Ukrainian refugees, arrived on a separate train.
After watching Irpin, he wrote on Twitter that there were “no words to describe the unimaginable human tragedy and horrific destruction” and called for “all Russian authors to be held accountable by the system of international criminal justice”.
Several air raid sirens sounded as European leaders were at their hotel to prepare for the rest of their visit, and authorities in Kyiv urged people to take shelter. Such alerts are frequent.
In Ukraine, Mr Macron responded to criticism of France’s response, including his recent comment that Russia should not be “humiliated”, which deeply
angry Ukrainians. He insisted: “France has been alongside Ukraine since day one.
His office also released a list of the dates of all of his conversations with Mr. Zelensky. They have spoken on the phone 23 times since the start of the war; and Mr. Macron has spoken 11 times with Mr. Putin, including three times with Mr. Scholz.
Scholz had long resisted traveling to Kyiv, saying he didn’t want to “join the queue of people making a quick entry for a photo op”. Instead, Scholz said a trip should focus on “hard things.”
Germany announced on Wednesday that it would supply Ukraine with three multiple rocket launcher systems of the type that Kyiv has said it urgently needs.
Tamara Malko, a resident of the Donetsk region which is part of Donbass, said Mr Macron and Mr Scholz had been “very cold” towards Ukrainians so far and hoped for change.
“We really want peace and have high hopes for Macron and Scholz,” she said. “We want them to see and understand our pain.”