TORETSK, Ukraine — The leaders of the European Union’s three most influential countries arrived in Ukraine on Thursday in one of the biggest displays of support for the beleaguered nation after four months of Russian assault.
The visit to Kyiv by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi took place as criticism has grown of Europe’s strategy in supporting Ukraine and after repeated pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the West to deliver more and stronger weapons to aid his fighters.
Macron, who joined Draghi and Scholz to cross Ukraine’s western border by train to arrive in Kyiv, said he was there to bring a “message of unity” and “to talk both about the present and the future, because we know the coming weeks are going to be very hard.”
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis arrived separately and joined the other three European leaders as they toured Irpin — a Kyiv suburb that was among the worst-hit in the early phase of the war — before the group was scheduled to meet with Zelenskyy.
“It is an important moment,” Macron said of the diplomacy, which came as the war entered its 17th week.
Although foreign dignitaries have regularly traveled to Kyiv to express their backing of Zelenskyy, it was the first visit by the leaders of France and Germany, traditionally the EU’s two drivers, both of which have been accused by Ukraine of offering inadequate support.
Macron recently faced criticism after calling for Western leaders to avoid “humiliating” Russia. Scholz, whose nation is heavily reliant on Russian energy imports, has expressed doubts over a European Union ban on Moscow’s gas and oil industry, though he has softened his view over the months.
An EU body is expected to make a recommendation Friday that Ukraine should be considered for membership in the bloc, though admission would require the approval of all 27 EU states and usually follows a lengthy process.
The four EU leaders’ pilgrimage to Kyiv, which has remained relatively unscathed by the war in the last few weeks, came against the backdrop of an all-out Russian assault in the eastern Donbas region. The area, which borders Russia, has been the focus of Moscow’s ambitions since the late spring after its troops were beaten back from Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
At the same time, the Kremlin has taken control of key cities, including the port city of Mariupol and Kherson, the first urban area to fall to invading forces early in the war.
In the Donbas, an industrial heartland, no city remains unaffected by the war.
A weekday in Toretsk, a small city in Donetsk province, would normally see many of its 31,000 residents going to work at the two government-owned mines. But like many other areas in the Donbas, Toretsk seemed empty Thursday, with mostly uniformed service personnel and the occasional group of residents lining up at ATMs and outside shops.
In the morning, what appeared to be a missile struck one of the mines on the edge of town. Some people nearby seemed unconcerned, going about their business with barely a glance at the smoke wreathing the mine’s tower.
Moscow’s troops have also waged an aggressive battle for the city of Severodonetsk, with Ukrainian officials all but saying they expect the area to fall to Russia.
The regional governor of Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, said this week that Moscow controlled 80% of Severodonetsk, which abuts the strategic Seversky Donets River and is one of the last places in Luhansk still in Ukrainian hands.
Evacuations of residents are “simply not possible,” Haidai said.
Bulos reported from Toretsk and Kaleem from London.