Four European leaders made a high-profile visit to show their support for Ukraine on Thursday, denouncing the brutality of the Russian invasion as they surveyed the ruins of a Kyiv suburb that was the scene of intense fighting early in the war and where many civilians were killed.
After arriving in Kyiv to the sound of air raid sirens, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania headed to Irpin, which was seized and briefly held by Russian troops along with other areas near the capital. Mass graves have been unearthed in the area, most notably in Bucha, and French President Emmanuel Macron decried the massacres and said there were signs of war crimes.
He denounced the “barbarism” of the attacks that devastated Irpin, and praised the courage of its residents and others in the region who helped thwart Russia’s attempt to overrun the capital.
The visit, which included a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, carries heavy symbolic weight since the three Western European powers have faced criticism for continuing to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and failing to provide Ukraine with the scale of weaponry that it has said is necessary to fend off the Russians.
Western arms were key to Ukraine’s surprising success in preventing the Russians from taking the capital — but officials have said much more will be needed if they are to drive Moscow’s forces out.
The leaders have also been criticized for not visiting Kyiv sooner. A number of other European leaders have already made the long trip overland to show solidarity with a nation under attack, even in times when the fighting raged closer to the capital than it does now.
On Thursday, NATO defense ministers met in Brussels to consider more military aid for Ukraine, and many hoped in Ukraine that the leaders’ visit could mark a turning point by opening the way to significant new arms supplies — particularly as the officials surveyed the war’s devastation.
Ahead of the meeting with Zelenskyy, the leader German Chancellor Olaf Scholz observed that officials must keep the destruction in mind in all their decisions.
“Innocent civilians have been hit, houses have been destroyed; a whole town has been destroyed in which there was no military infrastructure at all,” Scholz said. “And that says a great deal about the brutality of the Russian war of aggression, which is simply out for destruction and conquest. We must bear that in mind in everything that we decide.”
Italian Premier Mario Draghi said during the tour of Irpin that Ukraine’s backers will rebuild “everything” with European help.
“They destroyed the nurseries, the playgrounds, and everything will be rebuilt,” Draghi said.
Macron, Scholz and Draghi, representing the three largest economies in Europe, traveled to Kyiv together on a special overnight train provided by the Ukrainian authorities.
President Klaus Iohannis of Romania — which borders Ukraine and has been a key destination for Ukrainian refugees — arrived on a separate train.
After viewing Irpin, he wrote on Twitter that there are “no words to describe the unimaginable human tragedy and horrible destruction” and called for “all Russian perpetrators to be held responsible by the international criminal justice” system.
The Russian forces are pressing their offensive in the eastern Donbas region, slowly but steadily gaining ground on the badly outmanned and outgunned Ukrainian forces, who are pleading for more arms from Western allies.
Several air raid sirens rang out while the European leaders were in their hotel preparing for the rest of their visit, and Kyiv authorities urged people to seek shelter. Such alerts are a frequent occurrence.
Many leaders and regular people in not only Ukraine but the Baltic and Central European nations, which were controlled by Moscow during the Cold War, believe that Putin only understands force, and have viewed the efforts by Macron and others to keep speaking to Putin following his invasion as unacceptable.
Tamara Malko, a resident of the Donetsk region that is part of the Donbas, said Macron and Scholz had been “very cold” toward Ukrainians so far, and hoped for a change.
“We want peace very much … and have high hopes for Macron and Scholz,” she said. “We want them to see and understand our pain.”
Gov. Serhiy Haidai of Luhansk, which is also part of the Donbas, said the visit would not bring anything if the leaders ask Ukraine to sign a peace treaty with Russia that involves giving up territory. He said that is something Ukrainians would never accept.
“I am sure that our president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is not going to make concessions and trade our territories. If someone wants to stop Russia by giving them territories, Germany has Bavaria, Italy has Tuscany, the French can concede Provence, for instance,” he said.
“Today it will be one territory, tomorrow another one, the day after tomorrow another,” he said.
The visit comes as EU leaders prepare to make a decision June 23-24 on Ukraine’s request to become a candidate for EU membership, and ahead of an important NATO summit June 29-30 in Madrid.
In Ukraine, Macron responded to criticism of France’s response, including his recent comment that Russia shouldn’t be “humiliated,” which deeply angered Ukrainians. He insisted that “France has been at Ukraine’s side since the first day.”
His office also released a list of the dates of all his conversations with Zelenskyy. They have spoken by phone on 23 occasions since the war began; and Macron spoke with Putin 11 times, including three times with Scholz.
Macron is involved in diplomatic efforts to push for a cease-fire in Ukraine that would allow future peace negotiations. He has frequent discussions with Zelenskyy and has spoken on the phone several times with Russian President Vladimir Putin since Putin launched the invasion in late February.
Scholz had long resisted traveling to Kyiv, saying he didn’t want to “join the queue of people who do a quick in-out for a photo opportunity.” Instead, Scholz said a trip should focus on doing “concrete things.”
Germany on Wednesday announced that it will provide Ukraine with three multiple launch rocket systems of the kind that Kyiv has said it urgently needs.