KYIV, Ukraine — Four European leaders boarded the train for Ukraine’s capital on Thursday and met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a show of unity for a country struggling to retain Russia’s military.
In the eyes of many Ukrainians, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi have all been too accommodating to Russia.
For each of them, it was the first trip to Ukraine since the start of the war, and doing it together was clearly an attempt to show strong European support for Ukraine. The fourth leader, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, is already seen as a strong supporter of Ukraine. His country had taken in some 800,000 Ukrainian refugees.
The leaders held talks with Zelenskyy in the heavily fortified presidential compound on a hill overlooking the city. At an outdoor press conference afterwards, the four visiting leaders, all in suits and ties, stood on either side of Zelenskyy, in his trademark olive t-shirt.
Zelenskyy said he trusts the pledges made by the leaders, although no new aid to Ukraine has been announced.
“I am very happy with the discussions we had today,” he said.
The four leaders arrived in Kyiv by train as Ukraine’s civilian airports were closed by the war. The air raid sirens went off shortly after their arrival.
European leaders first traveled to Irpin, a suburb of the capital where Russian troops were accused of widespread abuses early in the war.
Macron denounced what he called the “barbarity” of these attacks and said there were signs the Russians had carried out “massacres”.
The French leader said his trip was “a message of European unity for the Ukrainian people, support now and in the future, because the coming weeks will be very difficult”.
Ukrainian leaders were also unhappy with Scholz, the German leader, who said Ukraine should not lose the war but fell short of saying it should win in its fight against Russia.
But after visiting Irpin, Scholz sharply criticized Russia, saying the damage “says a lot about the brutality of the Russian war of aggression, which is simply aimed at destroying and conquering”.
Meanwhile, Zelenskyy welcomed the US announcement on Wednesday to send an additional $1 billion in military aid including heavy weapons for Ukraine’s underarmed military.
“This is yet another sign that Western support for Ukraine is here to stay,” Zelenskyy said in his usual late-night speech. “I will continue to request the necessary weapons and equipment, but the bravery and skill of our military cannot be imported.”
Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine broke down a few weeks ago and no new talks are on the horizon.
“How can the country that rapes our women be allowed to save face?” Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelenskyy’s top advisers, told NPR in an interview this week. “What do we need to win this war, for this war to end? We need weapons.
Podolyak is Ukraine’s chief negotiator, and in the early weeks of the war he led a team that met repeatedly with Russian officials. As evidence of Russian abuses mounted on the battlefield, the Ukrainian public turned against such discussions.
In a poll last month, more than 80% of Ukrainians said they were unwilling to give up territory for peace, even if it means prolonged conflict, according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.
Podolyak said that if the Ukrainians ceded territory to Russia now, even under a temporary ceasefire, there was no guarantee that Russia would not invade later.
“A ceasefire would be a de facto Russian victory,” he said. But, he added, “We are ready to agree on something as long as that [Russian] the threat does not persist.”
For now, Podolyak and other Ukrainian leaders say Ukraine desperately needs more artillery to fight the Russian forces that are making huge strides in the east of the country. After weeks of heavy fighting, the Russians are about to capture the city of Sievierodonetsk in the Donbass region.
Podolyak posted a weapon wishlist on Twitter, which included requests for 1,000 howitzers, 1,000 drones and 500 tanks. He said this would give Ukraine “parity” with Russian forces.
He pointed out that Ukraine is increasingly dependent on Western weapons as it lacks ammunition for its aging Soviet-era arsenal. Additional ammunition for these weapons is not widely available outside of Russia.
Ukraine has transitioned to NATO equipment in recent years, but Podolyak says it takes European membership for Ukraine to fully transition to more modern systems that are manufactured and sold globally entire.
But as long as the Russians have an artillery advantage of 10 to 1 or more, Ukraine will continue to struggle on the battlefield, he said.