KYIV: The leaders of major EU powers France, Germany and Italy vowed on Thursday to help Ukraine defeat Russia and to rebuild its shattered cities, in a visit to a war-torn Kyiv suburb.
French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian premier Mario Draghi arrived in Ukraine by train and headed to Irpin, scene of fierce battles early in Russia’s invasion.
“France has been alongside Ukraine since day one. We stand with the Ukrainians without ambiguity. Ukraine must resist and win,” Macron told journalists.
Surrounded by the wreckage left by Ukraine’s successful but hard-fought defence of its capital in the early stages of the 113-day-old conflict, Draghi said: “We will rebuild everything.
“They destroyed kindergartens, they destroyed playgrounds. Everything will be rebuilt,” he promised.
It is the first time the three have visited Kyiv since Russia’s February 24 military intervention.
Ukraine has applied to join the European Union and, although no-one in Brussels expects this to be a quick process, the leaders of the bloc’s most powerful countries were expected to bring President Volodymyr Zelensky a positive message.
Kyiv is also pleading with its western allies to step up supplies of weapons to its forces, which are outgunned by Russian artillery on the frontline in east of the country.
‘Stand by Ukraine’
Germany, especially, has been criticised for slow weapons deliveries, but western defence ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss what more they can do and on Wednesday US President Joe Biden announced $1 billion worth of new arms for Ukrainian forces.
Moscow was dismissive of the European visit, and of the arms supplies.
“Supporting Ukraine by further pumping Ukraine with weapons,” warned Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov would be “absolutely useless and will cause further damage to the country”.
The new US support package includes howitzers, ammunition, anti-ship missile systems, and additional rockets for new artillery systems that Ukraine will soon put in the field.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine is focused on the industrial city of Severodonetsk, and Russians forces appear close to consolidating control after weeks of intense battles.
Sergiy Gaiday - the governor of the Lugansk region, which includes the city - said Thursday around 10,000 civilians remain trapped in the city, out of a pre-war population of some 100,000.
Kyiv’s army is “holding back the enemy as much as possible,” he said on Telegram. “For almost four months they have dreamt of controlling Severodonetsk... and they do not count the victims.”
Moscow’s forces have destroyed the three bridges spanning a river between the city and Lysychansk.
Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a Severodonetsk chemical plant, which is under constant bombardment, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Russia said Ukrainian authorities had on Wednesday prevented an attempt at evacuating them.
The visit by Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has taken weeks to organise, while all three have faced criticism from Kyiv over support viewed as tepid. Britain’s Boris Johnson already visited more than two months ago.
Still, the decision by the three most powerful EU leaders to travel together held strong symbolism at a pivotal moment - a day before the EU’s executive commission is expected to recommend pushing forward with Ukraine’s bid to join the bloc, which EU leaders are expected to endorse at a summit next week.
Nato defence ministers were also meeting in Brussels on Thursday, where they were expected announce more promises of additional weapons for Kyiv. US President Joe Biden pledged $1 billion worth of new aid on Wednesday, including anti-ship rocket systems, artillery rockets and rounds for howitzers.
The three European leaders were pictured in casual clothes around a table on board the night train. Scholz later stepped out onto the platform in Kyiv in a dark short-sleeved shirt and jeans; Macron and Draghi changed into suits.
All three leaders say they are strong supporters of Ukraine who have taken major practical steps to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and find weapons to help Kyiv.
But Ukraine has long criticised Scholz over what it regards as Germany’s slow delivery of weapons and reluctance to sever economic ties with Moscow.
It was also furious this month when Macron, in an interview, said 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 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, told German newspaper Bild.
MORE US WEAPONS
While the leaders were in Kyiv, their defence ministers were taking part in the culmination of a two-day meeting at Nato headquarters. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was “extremely focused” on stepping up support for Ukraine.
Germany’s defence minister said three multiple rocket launchers it had promised Kyiv could be delivered in July or August, once Ukrainians are trained to use them.
Kyiv says it urgently needs more weapons, especially artillery and rockets, to counter Russia’s firepower advantange.
Kyiv 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 both its aims and its tactics, now trying to fortify territory it occupies in the east and south, and to seize more with slow advances behind massive artillery bombardments.
The main battle in recent weeks has been over the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk. On Wednesday, Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical factory there with hundreds of civilians ignored a Russian order to surrender.
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 not completely cut-off.
Ukraine still holds a pocket of territory in the wider, eastern Donbas region, which Russia has vowed to capture on behalf of its separatist proxies. Most is on the opposite side of the river, which Russian troops have struggled to cross.
In the south, Ukrainian forces have been making slow inroads into Kherson province, the largest swath of territory Russia still holds from the areas it captured since the invasion.