Volodymyr Zelensky seeks weapons for war effort and EU membership as he wins cheers in Brussels

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky received a warm welcome from European leaders and a standing ovation from the European Parliament on Thursday in Brussels, where he sought more weapons to fend off Russia and a quicker path toward EU membership.

ddressing a summit of the 27 leaders of EU countries, he called for tighter sanctions on Moscow and punishment for Russian leaders responsible for the attack on Ukraine nearly a year ago.

“Free Europe cannot be imagined without free Ukraine,” he told the leaders.

“Europe is free, Europe will be free and Europe is united.”

Zelensky attended the summit a day after meeting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London and having dinner with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz in Paris on just his second known trip outside Ukraine since the invasion.

A push for advanced Western fighter jets was the main theme of the initial stops on his European tour, which secured a pledge from Britain to train pilots to fly them.

His speech to cheering members of the European parliament, some in blue and yellow Ukrainian colours, was less argumentative, omitting his customary wishlist of more weapons systems. Instead, he emphasised the role of ordinary Europeans in welcoming millions of refugees.

“I would like to thank you, all of you, who have been helping our people, our ordinary citizens, our resettled people here who called on their leaders to increase and enhance their support,” he said.

Josep Borrell, who chairs EU summits, told reporters before the summit that the EU’s 27 national leaders would promise more military support for Ukraine, though he gave no details.

Zelensky, whose only other trip abroad since the war began was a surprise visit to Washington in December, has been feted as a war-time hero by Western leaders that have backed Ukraine with weapons, including tanks promised just last month.

Western countries have so far balked at sending warplanes or other weapons that could strike deep inside Russia. But the atmosphere surrounding Zelensky’s trip suggested movement towards lifting that taboo.

“You need to win. And now (EU) member states must consider quickly, as the next step, providing long-range systems and the jets that you need to protect your liberty,” the head of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, said introducing Zelenskiy’s speech.

Although Britain’s offer to train pilots to fly NATO jets stopped short of a promise to deliver the planes to Kyiv, Sunak instructed his government to look into whether aircraft were available and said nothing was off the table.

The Kremlin said it would be Ukrainians who suffered if Britain or other Western countries supplied fighter jets to Kyiv, and that the line between indirect and direct Western involvement in the war was disappearing.

“One can only express regret in this regard, and say that such actions … lead to an escalation of tension, prolong the conflict and make the conflict more and more painful for Ukraine,” he added.

Ukraine submitted its application to join the EU days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion last year, and now wants formal membership talks to start within months. A Ukrainian official said Kyiv was “absolutely sure the decision to start accession negotiations can be taken this year”.

Some EU member states want to give Ukraine the morale boost that would come with opening the talks swiftly. But others are more cautious, stressing that would-be members must meet hurdles such as cracking down on corruption before talks can begin.

New sanctions against Russia were also likely to be discussed in Brussels. Scholz said on Wednesday in Berlin that the EU will tighten sanctions against Moscow again near the war’s anniversary.

Russian forces have been advancing in recent weeks for the first time in half a year, fortified with tens of thousands of freshly mobilised recruits, in relentless winter battles that both sides describe as some of the bloodiest of the war. Kyiv says it expects Moscow to broaden that offensive with a big push as the invasion’s Feb. 24 anniversary approaches.

Russia said it had destroyed four Ukrainian artillery depots in the Donetsk region. Ukraine’s military said that over past 24 hours, Russian troops maintained offensives in the regions of Kupyansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Novopavlivka and Vuhledar.

Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s governor of the mostly Russian-occupied eastern Luhansk province, described a major new Russian assault around Kreminna, along a northern stretch of the eastern front.

The Russians “are trying to build on their success by pushing through out defenders’ defences,” he told Ukrainian television. “So far they have had no significant success, our defence forces are holding firmly there.”

Reuters could not immediately verify the battlefield accounts.

The Wagner mercenary group, which has spearheaded Russia’s assault on the Donetsk town of Bakhmut, has stopped recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine, Wagner’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Thursday.

Wagner has recruited thousands of prisoners with promises of pardons. Kyiv and Western countries say huge numbers of them have been killed in human wave attacks around Bakhmut.

Russia launched its “special military operation” last year to combat what it describes as a security threat from Ukraine’s ties to the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia’s invasion is an unprovoked land grab.


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