KYIV: The leaders of Germany, France and Italy - all criticised in the past by Kyiv for support viewed as too cautious - made a joint visit to Ukraine on Thursday (Jun 16), touring a town devastated by Russia's invasion.
"It's an important moment. It's a message of unity we're sending to the Ukrainians," French President Emmanuel Macron said after pulling into Kyiv on an overnight train along with Germany's Olaf Scholz and Italy's Mario Draghi. They were also joined by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
Air raid sirens blared as the visit got under way. They toured the ruins of Irpin, a Kyiv suburb devastated by fighting early in the war, when Russian forces left bodies of civilians littering the streets as they withdrew.
Noting graffiti on a wall that read "Make Europe, not war", Macron said: "It's very moving to see that. This is the right message."
The visit took weeks to organise, while the three most powerful EU leaders all fended off criticism over positions described as too deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Britain's Boris Johnson visited Kyiv more than two months ago.
Still, the decision by the three to travel together held strong symbolism at a pivotal moment - a day before the EU's executive commission is expected to recommend pushing forward with Ukraine's bid to join the bloc, which EU leaders are expected to endorse at a summit next week.
NATO defence ministers were also meeting in Brussels and were expected to announce more promises of additional weapons for Kyiv. US President Joe Biden pledged US$1 billion worth of new aid on Wednesday, including anti-ship rocket systems, artillery rockets and rounds for howitzers.
"Every day, I struggle for Ukraine to get the weapons and equipment it needs," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation.
Ukraine applied to join the EU just four days after Russia invaded in February, and another four days later Moldova and Georgia applied too.
"As of today, we are already so much closer to obtaining this status than we could have dreamed even a few years ago. Ukraine has done everything possible to become a candidate," Zelenskyy said.
"SAVE MR PUTIN'S FACE"
Scholz, Macron and Draghi all say they are strong supporters of Ukraine who have taken major practical steps to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy and find weapons to help Kyiv.
But Ukraine has long criticised Scholz over what it regards as Germany's slow delivery of weapons and reluctance to sever economic ties with Moscow, and was furious this month at Macron for saying in an interview that Russia must not be "humiliated".
Italy has also proposed a peace plan, which Ukrainians fear could lead to pressure on them to give up territory.
"They will say that we need to end the war that is causing food problems and economic problems...that we need to save Mr Putin's face," Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy, told German newspaper Bild prior to the visit.
Germany's defence minister said three multiple rocket launchers it had promised Kyiv could be delivered in July or August, once Ukrainians are trained to use them.
Kyiv says it urgently needs more weapons, especially artillery and rockets, to counter Russia's firepower advantange. Kyiv is taking hundreds of casualties a day as the war has entered a brutal attritional phase in the east.
After Moscow launched its "special military operation" claiming its aim was to disarm and "denazify" its neighbour, Ukraine repelled an armoured assault on Kyiv in March.
Since then, however, Russia has shifted both its aims and its tactics, now trying to fortify territory it occupies in the east and south, and to seize more with slow advances behind massive artillery bombardments.
The main battle in recent weeks has been over the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk. On Wednesday, Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical factory there with hundreds of civilians ignoring a Russian order to surrender.
All remaining bridges linking the city with Ukrainian-held territory on the opposite bank of Siverskyi Donets river were destroyed in recent days, but Ukrainian officials say the garrison is not completely cut-off.
Ukraine still holds a pocket of territory in the wider, eastern Donbas region, which Russia has vowed to capture on behalf of its separatist proxies. Most are on the opposite side of the river, which Russian troops have struggled to cross.
In the south, Ukrainian forces have been making slow inroads into Kherson province, the largest swath of territory Russia still holds from the areas it captured since the invasion.