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France, Germany, Italy back Ukraine’s E.U. candidacy in first wartime trip to Kyiv

The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania arrived in Kyiv on June 16, marking the highest-profile visit to Ukraine's capital since Russia invaded. (Video: Reuters)

BERLIN — The leaders of the European Union’s three largest economies on Thursday said they were backing Ukraine’s candidacy to join the 27-member bloc, a move that President Volodymyr Zelensky has fiercely advocated as his country loses ground in the face of Russia’s invasion.

The announcement came during the first wartime visit to Kyiv by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who traveled together from Poland on an overnight train. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis joined them in the Ukrainian capital.

“We are at a turning point in our history,” Draghi said, standing alongside Zelensky and the three other leaders at a news conference in the garden of the Mariinsky Palace, where official delegations are received.

“Every day, the Ukrainian people are defending the values of democracy and liberty that are the pillars of the European project, of our project,” Draghi said.

Scholz said he had come with the message that Ukraine “belongs to the European family.” Macron declared: “Ukraine can count on us.” Europe is “more united and stronger than ever,” Iohannis said.

The E.U. contingent, in suits and polished leather shoes, presented a contrast to Zelensky, dressed in a military-style khaki T-shirt, green pants and sneakers. Air raid sirens could be heard shortly before the leaders spoke.

Ahead of the visit, Macron and Scholz had faced mounting political pressure over what has been cast by critics as hesitancy over their backing of Ukraine. Germany, in particular, is under fire for dragging its feet on weapons shipments, with Berlin yet to deliver any heavy arms to Ukraine, despite promising to do so nearly two months ago.

Zelensky has urged Europe to provide more military support, emphasizing that Ukraine is suffering “painful losses” in the eastern region of Donbas, and warning that if defense aid is not significantly increased, the war risks devolving into a bloody stalemate.

U.S. to send $1 billion in military aid to bolster Ukrainian fight

The most significant new weapons commitment announced during Thursday’s visit was the promise of six additional Caesar self-propelled artillery units from France, to complement 12 already delivered. NATO allies are expected to announce additional military aid at an upcoming summit in Madrid.

Setting the E.U. membership process in motion has also been a focal point for Ukraine’s international lobbying. The leaders’ Kyiv visit came a day before the European Union’s executive arm is expected to recommend that Ukraine be granted candidate status.

While support from Germany, France, Italy, Romania and the Commission will add momentum to Ukraine’s campaign for candidacy, all 27 member states still need to agree — and E.U. diplomats expect significant debate at a summit next week.

Senior Ukrainian officials have rebuffed the idea of conditional membership, saying the starting point for any discussion is legal status for Ukraine.

Even once candidate status is granted, the process typically takes years. A prospective member’s entire body of laws must be picked over and brought into compliance with standards set in Brussels. And Ukraine must prove that it has moved beyond a political record marred by corruption.

Macron warned recently that it could be “decades” before Ukraine is a full member.

E.U. leaders happy to pose with Zelensky, hesitant on Ukraine membership

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Zelensky has argued that Ukraine should be admitted to the E.U. under a special, expedited procedure. On Thursday, he seemed to have tempered some of his expectations, saying he realized the path to integration would be a “long road.”

“But we must all together take the first step on this path,” he said. “Our country is ready to do everything necessary to become a full member of the European Union and all people, all Ukrainians, aspire to it.”

Scholz on Thursday reiterated that Germany also supports the accession process for Moldova, and he has argued in the past that it would be unfair for Ukraine to jump ahead in the process.

Before their meeting with Zelensky, the European leaders visited the suburb of Irpin, an area that bore the brunt of Russia’s initial failed effort to encircle and capture the capital.

They toured streets lined with blown-out buildings — one of which had “Make Europe, not war,” scrawled on the side. “It’s very moving to see that,” Macron said, the Associated Press reported.

The French president has proposed that while Ukraine and other countries are working through the process to become full E.U. members, they should be included in a “European political community” — a framework for cooperation widely seen as a half measure.

Referring to that idea Thursday, Macron said that “because Ukraine shares our democratic values and belongs to our continental space,” it was entitled to more rapid responses in the areas of security, infrastructure and energy.

Zelensky during the war has been persistently tough on his allies, especially Germany.

“We need Chancellor Scholz to assure us that Germany supports Ukraine,” he said in an interview with ZDF television ahead of the visit.

He called on the country to make a “decision” between support for Ukraine and maintaining relations with Russia.

Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin doesn’t care if he offends for his cause

Instead of saying that Ukraine should be victorious, Scholz has been saying that Russia should not win. Ukrainian officials fear that lack of explicit backing indicates that Europe is angling toward a negotiated settlement that would involve Ukraine ceding territory.

Ukrainian officials point to a critical situation on the battlefield, with their forces losing their grip on the key eastern city of Severodonetsk and suffering hundreds of casualties a day.

President Biden on Wednesday responded to Ukraine’s call for more weapons with an additional $1 billion in security assistance.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday in Brussels that the United States was working to give “as much capability as fast as we can … to ensure that Ukraine can be successful on the battlefield.”

He added: “There are no inevitabilities in war. War takes many, many turns, so I wouldn’t say it’s a inevitability, but I would say that the numbers clearly favor the Russians.”

Europe, especially, is under pressure to offer more.

“We appreciate the support already provided by partners, we expect new deliveries, primarily heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery, antimissile defense systems,” Zelensky said Thursday. “The more powerful weapons we get, the faster we can liberate our people, our land.”

The German Defense Ministry has said that 15 promised self-propelled Gepard antiaircraft guns will be delivered in July, while Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers will be sent “soon.”

Speaking to journalists after Thursday’s news conference, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his side had been “satisfied” with Thursday’s meeting and there seemed to be a “clear understanding” that the country needed heavy weaponry, but that announcements “of new weapon deliveries to Ukraine should be made on a weekly basis.”

For both Scholz and Macron, this was their first trip to Kyiv since February, when they made last-ditch diplomatic efforts to prevent war.

Scholz had declined a return visit after Ukrainian leaders told German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier that his ties to Russia made him unwelcome. Ukraine’s ambassador in Berlin, Andrij Melnyk, had called the chancellor an “offended liverwurst” for refusing to go.

Ukrainian officials had also called out Macron for his extended absence and urged him to visit before France’s six-month presidency of the European Union ends June 30.

The French president met that deadline. The visit also came as his party was bracing for the possibility that it could lose its absolute majority in the final round of French parliamentary elections Sunday.

Macron was a key driver of E.U. sanctions against Russia. But, like Scholz, he has been criticized for ambiguous statements. Some of his critics charge that he appears more concerned with helping Russia avoid humiliation in the war and than with demonstrating commitment to a Ukrainian victory.

Macron pushed back this week, arguing that “excessive talk” will not speed up the war’s timeline.

Getting E.U. leaders to focus on that timeline seemed a central goal of Ukrainian leaders in Thursday’s visit.

“Every day of delaying or postponing decisions is a chance for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians or a chance to destroy our cities,” Zelensky said.

Noack reported from Paris, Rauhala from Brussels and Stern from Kyiv, Ukraine. Stefano Pitrelli and Chico Harlan in Rome and Kate Brady in Berlin contributed to this report.