KYIV, Ukraine — With waves of invading Russian troops pushing for their first significant victory in months, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that his country’s forces would “fight as long as we can” to hold on to the embattled city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region.
The fierce defense by Ukrainian troops in months of bloody fighting yielded a national rallying cry — “Bakhmut holds!” — and Friday’s difficult news from the front provided a stark reminder to the visiting E.U. delegation that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not given up on his plan to conquer Ukraine’s Donbas region, and to seize control of four provinces that Russia claims, illegally, to have annexed.
“No one will hand over Bakhmut,” Zelensky said at a news conference at the close of the meeting with E.U. leaders. “We consider Bakhmut our fortress.”
While Zelensky and other top officials met with their guests from Brussels, air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv and across the country twice during the day, signaling a possible Russian missile attack. No major strikes were reported.
The summit was a gesture of solidarity by the E.U. — the first such gathering since Russia’s full-scale invasion began nearly a year ago, and a strong signal to Moscow, which has sought to block Ukraine’s aspirations to become a Western-style democracy for more than a decade.
Those aspirations, however, remain a long-term dream. A joint statement said membership would only occur upon Ukraine meeting “all conditions specified in the Commission’s opinion.”
In granting candidate status to Ukraine in June, the E.U. laid out administrative requirements and governmental changes, including an effort to root out corruption, as conditions for joining.
Zelensky, speaking at the closing news conference, said Ukraine had fulfilled many of the requirements under “extremely difficult conditions of confronting Russian terror and full-scale invasion.”
“Our goal is absolutely clear — to start negotiations on Ukraine’s membership in the European Union,” Zelensky said, flanked by European Council Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Zelensky added that he thought the E.U. would be ready to begin such talks “this year.”
Von der Leyen, however, said there were “no rigid timelines” but rather “goals” that Ukraine needed to reach first. Michel, for his part, said the E.U. was with Zelensky and the Ukrainian people “today … tomorrow and for long as it takes.”
But it is still far from clear that Ukraine will be able to emerge intact from the continuing Russian onslaught. And though Zelensky in recent days has initiated a sweeping crackdown against corruption, Ukraine’s immediate future hinges far more directly on the delivery of weapons, including tanks, to help defend against what is expected to be a major new Russian offensive, perhaps starting within weeks.
On Friday, a German government spokesman said the country had issued export licenses for its Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine, though he did not provide further details.
Zelensky, with the E.U. leaders at his side, urged Ukraine’s Western backers to send stronger weapons as fast as possible. “If the delivery of weapons, namely long-range weapons, is accelerated, not only will we not retreat from Bakhmut, we will begin to de-occupy Donbas, which has been occupied since 2014,” Zelensky said.
Germany’s announcement that it had issued the needed export permission came one week after Berlin agreed to send 14 of its more modern Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to grant permission for other countries to send the German-manufactured Leopard from their own stocks. The Leopard 1 is an earlier model produced between 1965 and 1979 and is not as powerful as the Leopard 2.
After Russia’s invasion, E.U. countries imposed repeated sanctions packages against Russia and have provided Ukraine with billions in financing to help prop up its battered economy.
The new assistance programs announced on Friday were modest, however.
E.U. leaders said that they would introduce a new aid package of 25 million euros to support efforts to remove deadly land mines, and that they would create a new center in The Hague to coordinate investigations into the crime of aggression against Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials have pushed for a special tribunal, like those that prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, to render judgment over what they say is a war of aggression by Russia.
Von der Leyen, announcing the donation of 35 million energy-saving lightbulbs, said every kilowatt “of energy saved is precious to counter Russia’s energy war.”
Separately, E.U. member states on Friday agreed to cap prices of Russian refined oil products, part of a broader push to limit Russia’s energy revenue and deflate its war chest.
Two prices — $100 per barrel on products that trade at a premium to crude, such as diesel, and $45 per barrel for products that trade at a discount — come as an E.U. ban on seaborne imports of Russian refined fuel is set to take effect Sunday. The goal of the price cap plan, which was pitched by Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, is to limit how much Moscow can earn from oil diverted elsewhere in the world without disrupting global supply.
Meanwhile, casualties continued to mount in Bakhmut, where those killed this week included a U.S. citizen, Pete Reed, who was working as a volunteer paramedic with a group called Global Outreach Doctors. Reed, a former U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan, had been on humanitarian missions in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
Reed’s wife, Alex Potter, who confirmed his death, wrote in an Instagram post that his ambulance had been hit by shelling while he was helping to evacuate civilians. “He died doing what he was great at, what gave him life, and what he loved,” Potter wrote.
Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.