The European Union’s most powerful leaders on Thursday embraced Ukraine’s bid to be accepted as a candidate for EU membership, in a powerful symbol of support in Kyiv’s battle against Russia’s invasion.
French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian premier Mario Draghi arrived in Ukraine by train and headed to the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, scene of fierce battles early in the brutal war.
They were later joined in Kyiv by Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis and met their Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been lobbying his western allies for most and faster weapons deliveries and the promise of a European future.
“All four of us support the status of immediate candidate for accession,” Macron told a joint press conference with his EU colleagues.
Draghi agreed: “The most important message of our visit is that Italy wants Ukraine in the EU.”
Scholz said Ukraine “belongs in the European family” and vowed: “We are supporting Ukraine with the deliveries of weapons. We will keep doing that for as long as it is needed.”
Zelensky promised Ukraine was ready to put in the work to become a fully-fledged EU member, and said Ukrainians has already proved themselves worthy of candidate status.
The European Commission will meet Friday to give its official opinion on Ukraine’s formal bid for EU candidacy, which must be approved by all 27 member states.
Once a candidate, it may take several years for Ukraine — already a poor country with a reputation for corruption before Russia’s assault — to meet membership criteria.
The NATO alliance will also meet in Madrid before the end of the month — with Zelensky attending as a guest by videoconference.
Members will discuss weapons and training for Ukrainian forces and shoring up their own eastern flank against the Russian threat.
“I explained our essential needs in the field of defense,” Zelensky said after meeting the visiting leaders.
“We are expecting new deliveries, above all heavy weapons, modern artillery, anti-aircraft defense systems,” he said, even as Macron said France would send six Caesar self-propelled howitzers to add to the 12 already deployed on Ukraine’s eastern front.
“Every batch of these deliveries saves Ukrainians. Every day of delayed or postponed decisions is an opportunity for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians or ruin our cities,” Zelensky said.
Earlier, on a tour of Irpin, Macron had declared: “France has been alongside Ukraine since day one. We stand with the Ukrainians without ambiguity. Ukraine must resist and win.”
Surrounded by the wreckage left by Ukraine’s successful but hard-fought defense 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 Feb. 24 invasion.
Germany, especially, has been criticized for slow weapons deliveries, but western defense ministers met in Brussels to discuss what more they can do and on Wednesday, U.S. 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.”
Zelensky countered: “Russia does not want peace, it never wants anything but war.”
The new U.S. 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.”
Elsewhere, Russia launched a missile strike in Ukraine’s north-east Sumy region, killing four people and injuring six others, governor Dmytro Zhyvytsky said on Telegram.
The United Nations warned a hunger crisis that has been worsened by the war in Ukraine, traditionally a breadbasket to the world, could swell already record global displacement numbers.
Addressing the food insecurity crisis is “of paramount importance… to prevent a larger number of people moving,” the United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi told reporters.