Ukraine’s Zelensky makes emotional appeal for EU membership
President Volodymyr Zelensky asked his Western allies Thursday for more weapons and said “a Ukraine that is winning” its war with Russia should become a member of the European Union, arguing the bloc won’t be complete without it.
Zelensky made his appeal during an emotional day at EU headquarters in Brussels as he wrapped up a rare, two-day trip outside Ukraine to seek new weaponry from the West to repel the invasion that Moscow has been waging for nearly a year. As he spoke, a new offensive by Russia in eastern Ukraine was under way.
Zelensky, who also visited the UK and France, received rapturous applause and cheers from the European Parliament and a summit of the 27 EU leaders, insisting in his speech that the fight with Russia was one for the freedom of all of Europe.
“A Ukraine that is winning is going to be member of the European Union,” Zelensky said, building his appeal around the common destiny that Ukraine and the bloc face in confronting Russia.
“Europe will always be, and remain Europe as long as we ... take care of the European way of life,” he said.
EU membership talks should start later this year, Zelensky said, an ambitious request given the huge task ahead. Such a move would help motivate Ukrainian soldiers in their defense of the country, he said.
“Of course we need it this year,” he said, then looked at European Council head Charles Michel, and insisted, tongue-in-cheek: “When I say this year, I mean this year. Two, zero, 23.”
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, however, said “there is no rigid timeline.” In practice, membership often has taken decades to complete.
He held up an EU flag after his address and the lawmakers stood in somber silence as the Ukrainian national anthem and the European anthem “Ode to Joy” were played in succession.
Before his speech, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said allies should consider “quickly, as a next step, providing long-range systems” and fighter jets to Ukraine. The response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine “must be proportional to the threat, and the threat is existential,” she said.
Metsola also told Zelensky that “we have your back. We were with you then, we are with you now, we will be with you for as long as it takes.”
A draft of the summit’s conclusions seen by The Associated Press said “the European Union will stand by Ukraine with steadfast support for as long as it takes.”
During his time in Brussels, Zelensky asked Slovakia’s Prime Minister Eduard Heger to give Ukraine its Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, and he replied: “We will work on” the request. Slovakia grounded its fleet of MiG-29s last year.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the bloc will send Zelensky “this signal of unity and solidarity, and can show that we will continue our support for Ukraine in defending its independence and integrity.”
Military analysts say Putin is hoping that Europe’s support for Ukraine will wane as Russia is believed to be preparing a new offensive.
The Kremlin’s forces “have regained the initiative in Ukraine and have begun their next major offensive” in the eastern Luhansk region, most of which is occupied by Russia, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its latest assessment. “Russian forces are gradually beginning an offensive, but its success is not inherent or predetermined.”
Zelensky used the dais of the European Parliament hoping to match Wednesday’s speech to Britain’s legislature when he thanked the nation for its unrelenting support.
That same support has come from the EU. The bloc and its member states have already backed Kyiv with about 50 billion euros ($53.6 billion) in aid, provided military hardware and imposed nine packages of sanctions on the Kremlin.
The EU is in the midst of brokering a new sanctions package worth about 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion) before the war’s anniversary. And there is still plenty of scope for exporting more military hardware to Ukraine as a Russian spring offensive is expected.
Russia is watching Zelensky’s movements closely. On Wednesday, Russian state television showed the flight path of a British air force plane that Zelensky used to travel to London, taken from a flight monitoring site. The anchor noted the plane flew from an air base in Rzeszow, Poland, that is a hub for Western arms deliveries to Ukraine.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, visited a Siberian arms factory Thursday and said his country will respond to the Western aid by churning out thousands of tanks.
“Our enemy was begging for aircraft, missiles and tanks on a trip abroad,” Medvedev said during a visit to the factory in Omsk. “We will naturally increase the output of various types of weapons and military equipment, including modern tanks. We are talking about production and modernization of thousands of tanks.”
Fighting in Ukraine intensified Thursday, with Kyiv’s military intelligence agency saying Russian forces have launched an offensive in the partially occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with the aim to grab full control of the entire industrial region, known as the Donbas. Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces there since 2014.
“An escalation is underway and the main goal is to seize Donbas by the end of March,” Main Intelligence Directorate spokesman Andriy Yusov told Ukrainian television.
In Donetsk, the front line expanded significantly over the previous day, with fierce battles taking place as Moscow’s forces closed in on key Ukrainian-held towns, according to regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko. Russian shelling struck a kindergarten, hospital, cultural center, factory and apartment buildings, he said.
“The intensity of the shelling has increased dramatically and we are seeing a significant intensification of activity by the Russian army immediately in the south, center and north of the region,” Kyrylenko said. “Russia is again actively using combat aircraft to shell our cities and villages.”
Russian forces also stepped up attacks in neighboring Luhansk province, launching “a broad offensive,” regional Gov. Serhii Haidai said.
In Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv province, 23 cities and villages came under shelling. In the border city of Vovchansk, shelling damaged about 10 apartment buildings.