Kiev, Ukraine – European leaders on Thursday pledged support to help Ukraine on its way to European Union membership, but promised the country no additional heavy weapons on the scale it says it needs to stop a bloody Russian advance into the ward off east.
The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania, who met in Kiev with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, all agreed to support Mr Zelensky’s efforts to take the first step towards joining the bloc, a step to redefine Ukraine as an integral part of Europe rather than a buffer state on the eastern fringe.
Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he and his fellow leaders had come “with a clear message: Ukraine belongs to the European family.”
The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, is expected to announce its official recommendation Friday on Ukraine’s application to become a formal candidate for membership. The approval process can take years.
The visiting leaders went to great lengths to refute suggestions that they — most notably President Emmanuel Macron of France — would favor a swift, negotiated end to the war, even if that would reward Russian aggression with territorial gains.
“What I am saying today is that Ukraine must win this war,” Macron said.
The visit provoked mixed reactions in Ukraine as the country moved closer to its long-sought goal of EU candidate status, but failed to receive major pledges of more long-range weapons to overcome Russia’s massive artillery advantage on the open plains of the eastern Donbas. region.
“We expect new supplies, especially heavy weapons, modern missile artillery and missile defense systems,” said Mr. Zelensky. “Every batch of supplies saves lives. And every day of delays or postponed decisions is an opportunity for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians.”
Mr Macron said France would provide six additional Caesar howitzers on trucks in the coming weeks, on top of the 12 already delivered. The United States has given Ukraine 108 long-range howitzers and has promised a few more this week.
But the deliveries and pledges are a fraction of the 1,000 howitzers that a consultant to Mr. Zelensky needed for parity on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine. Western pledges of missile artillery systems, tanks and other equipment also fail to meet Ukrainian requests.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
The Kiev visit was overshadowed by questions about whether European leaders would urge Mr Zelensky to pursue a peace deal with Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin as concerns mount in European capitals over the cost of a prolonged war and the risk of wider European involvement.
The Kremlin appeared to be sending an economic warning to EU leaders on Thursday when Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company, cut power to Europe’s main natural gas pipeline for the second day in a row, pushing gas prices further.
Mr Zelensky said the leaders had personally raised the prospect of negotiations with Moscow. But talks, he said, would not end the war at this stage.
“We have touched on the topic of diplomatic efforts by different countries to achieve peace,” he said. “Everyone sees the only obstacle to all these efforts is the unwillingness of the Russian Federation for real actions, for real negotiations.”
Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said in an interview that he did not see the EU candidacy promise as part of a deal that Europe offered in exchange for Mr Zelensky’s government’s negotiations for a ceasefire. .
But some Ukrainian officials felt a sense of disappointment.
Viktor Andrusiv, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, wrote on social media that “Macron, Scholz and Draghi are running us as candidates for the EU and requesting return to the negotiation process with Putin.”
European leaders insisted they would not pressure Mr Zelensky to accept a peace deal with Moscow, while insisting on the Biden administration’s position that it is up to Ukraine to decide when and how to negotiate.
“We are and will remain by your side in the long term to defend your sovereignty, your territorial integrity and your freedom,” Macron told Zelensky. “This is our goal, we have no other and we will achieve it.”
Asked by reporters about his recent comment that Ukraine and its allies should not “humiliate Russia” to increase diplomacy opportunities, Macron said his words had been misunderstood.
He drew an analogy with the punitive conditions imposed on Germany by France and its allies after World War I, often seen as the seeds of the next World War.
“France made a historic mistake: it lost peace because it wanted to humiliate Germany,” he said.
If the current war ends, he said, Ukraine should not “make the mistakes that others made in the past”.
As the visit progressed, a French diplomatic official appeared to endorse even the broadest definition of victory cited by Ukrainian officials, calling on Russia to give up all territory it had conquered from Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula. which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Mr Scholz joined Mr Macron in refuting suspicions that Europe pushed Ukraine to the negotiating table.
“Only Ukraine – the president, the government, the parliament, the Ukrainian people – can decide what is right in the context of a peace deal from which, unfortunately, we are still very, very far away,” he said.
European leaders, including Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy and President Klaus Iohannis of Romania, also traveled to Irpin, a suburb of Kiev where investigators investigate reports of Russian atrocities. Led by a Ukrainian official, the leaders saw a video and photo exhibition and buildings that were burned and bombed.
“It’s even worse,” said Mr Scholz, “when you see how terribly pointless the violence we see here is.”
Russia dismissed the visit as empty symbolism. Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former Russian president who is vice-chairman of Putin’s Security Council, on Thursday belittled French, German and Italian leaders as “European connoisseurs of frogs, liverwurst and pasta”.
“They again promised EU membership and old howitzers, drank some Ukrainian vodka and took the train home, like 100 years ago,” said Mr Medvedev. wrote on Twitter† He added: “This alone will not bring Ukraine closer to peace. And the clock is ticking…’
Ukraine’s pleas for heavy weapons become increasingly urgent as Russia threatens to seize control of the Donbas.
In the twin cities of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, which have seen some of the deadliest fighting in recent weeks, all the bridges between the cities have been destroyed, leaving thousands of civilians largely trapped.
Severely besieged Sievierodonetsk is home to an estimated 10,000 people, and hundreds are believed to be in bunkers beneath a chemical plant that is under almost constant bombardment.
People in the city have reported running out of food and clean water, describing scenes similar to those seen during the siege in Mariupol, where residents were left without electricity or water for weeks and dug ditches to accommodate the increasing numbers of bodies.
Serhiy Haidai, the head of the region’s military administration, said the shelling in Sievierodonetsk was so intense that “people can no longer tolerate it in the shelters — their psychological state is on the brink.”
Russia has no control over the city, he said, and battles are fought from house to house. At the same time, Russian forces are destroying the villages around the city, Haidai said.
“The destruction of the residential sector is catastrophic,” he said.
It is estimated that 60,000 civilians are still in Lysychansk, where Ukraine holds power.
In Brussels, NATO defense ministers concluded a two-day meeting on Thursday by weighing ways to deter further Russian aggression and by debating a new “strategic concept”, the first in 12 years, that Russia and China as potential threats.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would build more stockpiles of war material on the eastern flank, put more troops on readiness and make new investments in air, cyber and naval defence.
All of these preparations will require member states to spend more on their own militaries and on NATO itself, Stoltenberg said. “The substantial reinforcement of our deterrence and defense is necessary for security, but it does not come for free,” he said.
The Kremlin has thrown NATO into the war as an enemy behind Kiev, insisting that Ukraine should never join the alliance and calling on other former members of the Soviet bloc to leave it. Moscow has been less vehement in its opposition to Ukraine’s EU membership, though it has long favored Ukraine’s economic dependence on Russia.
The support of France, Germany and Italy for EU membership was widely celebrated as a breakthrough for Ukraine. Ukrainian lawmaker Mr Honcharenko said it would help unite Ukraine by signaling a post-war future within the bloc and ending the perception of Ukraine as a security buffer between Europe and Russia.
“It is a psychological weapon to show that Ukraine has a future,” he said.
“Ukrainians are the only people on the continent who are dying for European values,” he added. “Europe would be betraying itself if it didn’t make this decision.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kiev and Michael Levenson From New York. Reporting contributed by Oleksandr Chubko from Kyiv, Steven Erlanger and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak from Lysychansk, Ukraine, Anton Trojanovskic† Katrin Bennhold and Erika Solomon from Berlin, Marc Santora from Warsaw and Aurelien Breeden from Paris.