The leaders of Germany, France and Italy – all criticised in the past by Ukraine for support viewed as too cautious – have visited Kyiv and offered the hope of European Union membership to a country pleading for weapons to fend off Russia’s invasion.
Air raid sirens blared in Kyiv as the visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz and Italy’s Mario Draghi began, with the leaders touring a nearby town wrecked early in the war.
After holding talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the leaders signalled the country should be granted EU candidate status, a symbolic gesture that would draw Ukraine closer to the bloc.
Mr Scholz said Germany had taken in 800,000 Ukrainian refugees who had fled the conflict and would continue to support Ukraine as long as it needs.
“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” he said.
On the battlefield, Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out against massive Russian bombardment in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk and described new progress in a counteroffensive in the south.
But they said battles on both main fronts depended on receiving more foreign aid, especially artillery to counter Russia’s big advantage in firepower.
“We appreciate the support already provided by partners, we expect new deliveries, primarily heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery, anti-missile defence systems,” Mr Zelenskiy said after the talks with his European counterparts.
“There is a direct correlation: the more powerful weapons we get, the faster we can liberate our people, our land.”
Mr Macron said France would step up arms deliveries to Ukraine while NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels were also expected to promise more weapons.
While European leaders attempted a show of solidarity for Ukraine, the continent’s dependency on Russia for much of its energy supplies was laid bare with gas deliveries through a major pipeline falling in recent days.
Russia blamed sanctions for holding up delivery of equipment sent abroad for repair but Germany and Italy dismissed Russia’s explanation for the shortfall which has raised concerns about supplies for winter.
“(We) belive these are lies. In reality they are making a political use of gas like they are using grain for political use,” Mr Draghi said.
Russia says grain shipments are being stifled by sanctions and mines laid by Ukraine, and denies responsibility for an emerging global food crisis.
The visit to Ukraine by the three most powerful EU leaders had taken weeks to organise while they all fended off criticism over positions described as too deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Critics compared Mr Macron and Mr Scholz to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who visited Kyiv more than two months ago.
The leaders, who were joined by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, toured Irpin, a town northeast of the capital devastated soon after the invasion began on February 24, where withdrawing Russian forces left behind bodies littering the streets.
After the talks in Kyiv, Macron said some sort of communication channel was still needed with Putin.
The main battle in recent weeks has been over the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, where Ukrainian forces are holed up in a chemical factory with hundreds of civilians.
“Every day it becomes more and more difficult because the Russians are pulling more and more weapons into the city, and trying to storm it from several directions,” Sievierodonetsk mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on Thursday.
An air strike on Thursday hit a building sheltering civilians in Lysychansk across the river, killing at least three and wounding at least seven, regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.
In the south, Ukraine says its forces have been making inroads into Kherson province, which Russia occupied early in its invasion.
There has been little independent reporting to confirm battlefield positions in the area.