By John Leicester and Sylvie
Kyiv: “Today is a truly historic day - Ukraine has felt the support of four powerful European states at once.”
So said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky triumphant after the high-stakes visit by the leaders of Europe’s three biggest economies to his battered country on Thursday.
Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Mario Draghi’s inspection of areas destroyed by Russia’s invasion and their presence in the Ukrainian capital for meetings with Zelensky, carried much symbolism.
“And in particular support for our movement to the European Union. All leaders understand why negotiations to end the war are not under way. Exclusively because of Russia’s position, which is only trying to intimidate everyone in Europe and continue the destruction of our state. [Russia] do not want to look for a way to peace. We will continue to fight until we guarantee our state full security and territorial integrity,” Zelensky said in a video released on Friday morning (AEST).
In Kyiv, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy, along with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, expressed their support for Ukraine, vowing to back its candidacy to eventually join the EU and offering more weapons to fend off Russian forces.
France’s Macron promised six more truck-mounted artillery guns, the latest in a new round of Western arms pledges as the war grinds on in the Donbas region in the east.
France, Germany, Italy and Romania “are doing everything so that Ukraine alone can decide its fate,” Macron said at a news conference with Zelensky and the others.
“My colleagues and I have come here to Kyiv today with a clear message: Ukraine belongs to the European family,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
France, Germany and Italy have all faced criticism for continuing to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and failing to give Kyiv the weaponry it says it needs. Ukraine held fears that Western resolve could wane as the war drags out.
With Scholz beside him, Macron defended earlier comments that riled Ukrainians about not humiliating Russia, solemnly noting how the end of World War I had sown the seeds of World War II.
“We are side by side today with Chancellor Scholz. One hundred years ago, we were at war and allies helped France win. France committed a historic mistake. It lost the peace because it wanted to humiliate Germany. The question of humiliation I always placed in a context to come, not the current context,” he said.
“Today, this war must be won, France clearly supports Ukraine so it prevails,” Macron said. “Germany, like France, will never be in situations where they negotiate on Ukraine’s behalf with Russia. Moreover, we have never done that.”
Zelensky said it was important for him to hear that European leaders “agree the end of the war and peace for Ukraine should be as Ukraine sees them”. He said Ukrainians would continue to fight for all of their land.
Ukrainians and some of their European neighbours have been afraid that Western powers might press for territorial concessions for the sake of peace.
Scholz reiterated that there is no such intent to dictate anything to Ukrainians, and that only they “can decide what is right in terms of an agreement on a peace which we are unfortunately very, very far away from.”
Italian Premier Mario Draghi expressed concern about millions of tonnes of grain backed up in Black Sea ports by the war, saying it could bring “worldwide catastrophe”. Italy has been a first destination for African migrants and could find itself overwhelmed as a result of large-scale hunger in the Southern Hemisphere.
“We want the atrocities to stop and we want peace,” Draghi said. “But Ukraine must defend itself, and it will be Ukraine that chooses the peace it wants.”
The leaders visited Irpin, a Kyiv suburb that saw intense fighting and where many civilians were killed. They decried the destruction there, with Macron saying he saw signs of “war crimes”.
While shocking images of such devastation have rallied Western support, Ukrainian officials have expressed concern that “war fatigue” could eventually erode that — particularly as rising prices and upcoming US elections increasingly dominating public concerns.
The US and its European allies have given billions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine, and Germany and the US recently announced new arms shipments.
While the European leaders were in Kyiv, NATO defence ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss plans for strengthening the military alliance’s eastern borders to dissuade Russia from planning any further aggression.
Many in Ukraine hope the visit could open the way to significant new arms supplies. It also comes as EU leaders prepare to decide next week on Ukraine’s request to become a candidate for membership in the bloc.
The war has increased pressure on EU governments to fast-track Ukraine’s candidate application, and Thursday’s pledge to support it along with that of neighbouring Moldova, pushes the whole 27-nation union closer to doing so. But the process still is expected to take years.
After the news conference, Zelenskyy made a digital appearance at large screens at technology shows in Paris, Amsterdam, London and Stockholm as what organisers called a 3D avatar. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with futuristic fighters and the text “Come to the Dark Side” and “Dominate or Die”, he urged countries to support Ukraine to bounce back from the war with a “global digital revolution”.
Macron, Scholz and Draghi had been criticised for not visiting sooner. Soon after they arrived, air raid sirens wailed.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president who is now deputy head of the Kremlin Security Council, dismissed the European leaders as “connoisseurs of frogs, liver and pasta” and said their visit brought no benefit.
“Again they promised EU membership and old howitzers, slammed down some vodka and, like 100 years ago, took the train home,” he tweeted. “And that’s all good. It’s just that this doesn’t bring Ukraine any closer to peace. And the clock is ticking. … ”
President Klaus Iohannis of Romania, which borders Ukraine and has been a key destination for its refugees, arrived on a separate train. He said at the news conference that Romania was facilitating the transit of Ukrainian exports, including grain.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a number of other European leaders had already made the trip to show their solidarity with Ukraine, even when the fighting raged closer to the capital than it does now.