KYIV, Ukraine — European leaders on Thursday pledged to support Ukraine’s progress towards European Union membership, but did not promise the country additional heavy weapons on the scale it says it needs to fend off Russia’s bloody offensive in the east.
The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania, meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, agreed to support Mr. Zelensky’s aspirations to take the first step towards membership in the bloc, a step towards redefining Ukraine as an integral part of Europe rather than a buffer state on its eastern fringe.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he and his fellow leaders came “with a clear message: Ukraine belongs to the European family.”
The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, is expected to announce on Friday its formal recommendation on Ukraine’s application for formal candidate membership status. The approval process can take years.
The leaders of the visit did their best to refute suggestions that they, especially French President Emmanuel Macron, would prefer a quick negotiated end to the war, even if it would reward Russian aggression with territorial gains.
“Today I say that Ukraine must win this war,” Mr. Macron said.
The visit drew mixed reactions in Ukraine as the country moved closer to its long-awaited goal of becoming an EU candidate but failed to receive serious promises of longer-range weapons to overcome Russia’s huge artillery advantage in the open plains of eastern Donbas. region.
“We expect new deliveries, especially heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery and missile defense systems,” Zelensky said. “Every shipment saves lives. And every day of delays or delayed decisions is an opportunity for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians.”
Mr Macron said France will deliver six additional Caesar howitzers on trucks in the coming weeks, on top of the 12 already delivered. The US has donated 108 long-range howitzers to Ukraine and promised several more this week.
But deliveries and commitments are only a fraction of the 1,000 howitzers the Zelenskiy adviser says are needed to secure parity on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine. The commitments of the West on rocket artillery systems, tanks and other equipment also do not meet the needs of Ukraine.
Better Understand the Russo-Ukrainian War
The Kyiv visit was overshadowed by questions about whether European leaders will pressure Mr. Zelensky to reach a peace deal with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as concerns grow in European capitals about the costs of a protracted war and the risk of wider European intervention. .
The Kremlin appears to have issued an economic warning to EU leaders on Thursday as Gazprom, Russia’s state gas company, cuts off natural gas supplies to Europe’s most important natural gas pipeline for the second day in a row, causing gas prices to rise further.
Mr. Zelenskiy said the leaders had privately raised the issue of talks with Moscow. But negotiations, he said, would not end the war at this stage.
“We touched on the topic of diplomatic efforts of various countries to achieve peace,” he said. “Everyone sees the only obstacle to all these efforts is the unpreparedness of the Russian Federation for real actions, for real negotiations.”
Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said in an interview that he does not see the promise of an EU candidacy as part of a deal Europe is offering in exchange for Mr. Zelenskiy’s government moving into ceasefire talks.
But there was disillusionment among some Ukrainian officials.
Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Viktor Andrusiv wrote on social networks that “Makron, Scholz and Draghi are bringing us a candidacy for the EU and a request to return to the negotiation process with Putin.”
European leaders insisted they were not pushing Mr. Zelenskiy to agree to a peace deal with Moscow, sticking to the Biden administration’s position that Ukraine should decide when and how to negotiate.
“We have been and will remain by your side for the long term to defend your sovereignty, your territorial integrity and your freedom,” Mr Macron told Mr Zelensky. “This is our goal, we have no other, and we will achieve it.”
Asked by reporters about his recent remark that Ukraine and its allies should not “humiliate Russia” in order to improve chances for diplomacy, Mr Macron said his words were misinterpreted.
He drew an analogy with the punitive conditions imposed by France and its allies on Germany after World War I, which were often seen as sowing the seeds for the next world war.
“France made a historic mistake: she lost the peace because she wanted to humiliate Germany,” he said.
According to him, when the current war is over, Ukraine should not “make the mistakes that others have made in the past.”
During the visit, a French diplomatic official even appeared to endorse the broadest definition of victory given by Ukrainian officials, urging Russia to relinquish all territory it seized from Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Mr. Scholz has joined Mr. Macron in debunking suspicions that Europe is pushing 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 agreement, from which, unfortunately, we are still very, very far away,” he said.
European leaders, including Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, also visited Irpin, a Kyiv suburb where investigators are investigating reports of Russian atrocities. Accompanied by a Ukrainian official, the leaders saw a video and photo exhibition, as well as burnt and bombed buildings.
“It’s even worse,” Mr. Scholz said, “when you see how horribly senseless the violence we’re seeing here.”
Russia dismissed the visit as empty symbolism. Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president who is deputy chairman of Putin’s Security Council, on Thursday called French, German and Italian leaders “European connoisseurs of frogs, liverwurst and pasta.”
“They promised EU membership again and old howitzers, drank Ukrainian vodka and went home like 100 years ago,” Mr. Medvedev. tweeted. He added: “It just doesn’t bring Ukraine closer to peace. And the clock is ticking…”
Ukraine’s calls for heavy weapons are getting more insistent as Russia threatens to seize control of the Donbas.
In the twin cities of Lysichansk and Severodonetsk, where some of the bloodiest fighting has been fought in recent weeks, all bridges between the cities have been destroyed, leaving thousands of civilians trapped.
Approximately 10,000 people remain in heavily besieged Severodonetsk, with several hundred believed to be hiding in bunkers under a chemical plant that is under almost constant bombardment.
City residents report running out of food and clean water, describing scenes similar to those played out during the siege of Mariupol, when residents were left without electricity and water for weeks and dug trenches to accommodate the growing number of bodies.
The head of the region’s military administration, Sergei Gaidai, said that the shelling in Severodonetsk was so intense that “people can no longer stand in shelters – their psychological state is at the limit.”
According to him, Russia does not control the city, and fierce fighting is going on from house to house. At the same time, Russian troops are devastating villages around the city, Mr. Haidai said.
“The destruction of the residential sector is catastrophic,” he said.
Some 60,000 civilians are estimated to still be in Lysichansk, where Ukraine maintains control.
In Brussels, NATO defense ministers concluded a two-day meeting on Thursday weighing ways to deter further Russian aggression and discussing a new “strategic concept” for the first time in 12 years that sees Russia and China as potential threats.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will build additional stockpiles of military equipment on its eastern flank, put more troops on high alert and make new investments in air, cyber and naval defense.
According to Mr. Stoltenberg, all these preparations will require member countries to spend additional money on their own armed forces and on NATO itself. “A significant increase in our deterrence and defense is necessary for security, but it is not free,” he said.
The Kremlin has portrayed NATO as the enemy behind Kyiv in the war, insisting that Ukraine should never join the alliance and urging other former members of the Soviet bloc to leave. Moscow has been less vehemently opposed to Ukraine’s EU membership, although it has long preferred Ukraine to be economically dependent on Russia.
France, Germany and Italy’s support for EU membership has been widely hailed as a breakthrough for Ukraine. Mr. Goncharenko, a Ukrainian MP, said it would help bring Ukraine together, marking a post-war future within the bloc and ending the perception of Ukraine as a security buffer between Europe and Russia.
“This is a psychological weapon to demonstrate that Ukraine has a future,” he said.
“Ukrainians are the only people on the continent who die for European values,” he added. “Europe would have betrayed itself if it hadn’t made this decision.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv and Michael Levenson from New York. Report has been provided Oleksandr Chubko from Kyiv, Stephen Erlanger as well as Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels Thomas Gibbons-Neff as well as Natalya Ermak from Lisichansk, Ukraine, Anton Troyanovsky, Catherine Bennhold as well as Erica Solomon from Berlin Mark Santora from Warsaw and Aurélien Breeden from Paris.