Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with German leaders in Berlin on Sunday, his latest stop on a diplomatic tour aimed at bolstering support for Western allies and pushing for faster delivery of weapons as a Ukrainian counter-offensive faced a 15-month war.
Speaking to journalists together at the chancellery on Sunday morning, Mr. Zelensky and Chancellor Olaf Scholz sought to highlight a developing relationship with an exchange of thanks and praise. But their answers to some questions – namely fighter jets – show how Kyiv is struggling to gain traction with Berlin and other Western allies on some of its demands.
Escorted Mr. Zelensky flew to Berlin on German fighter jets for his first trip to Germany since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began more than a year ago. He was met with military honors by Mr. Scholz in the chancellery.
The massive reception came a day after Germany announced its largest military aid package for Ukraine as the two countries seek to turn the page on months of rocky relations.
“German air defense systems, artillery, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles saved lives in Ukraine and brought us closer to victory,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “Germany is a reliable ally!”
The French presidency’s office said in a statement that Mr. Zelensky will go to Paris later Sunday for a dinner with President Emmanuel Macron to discuss military and humanitarian aid to France, as well as possible future peace talks. The Paris stop ends a two-day tour of European capitals during which Mr. Zelensky also spoke with Pope Francis and the Italian prime minister in Rome on Saturday.
In Germany, Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Scholz aims to improve relations after a year marred by diplomatic sniping and fighting in Berlin over an initially slow pace of arms deliveries to Ukraine. Kyiv and Berlin are well aware that their relationship will be more important than ever in Ukraine’s looming counter-offensive against Russia, in which an influx of sophisticated Western-supplied weapons is expected to play a key role. .
Mr. Scholz said the Ukrainian leader’s visit sent a “strong message” and promised that Germany would provide support — including weapons — against Russian aggression for “as long as necessary.”
Speaking to journalists after a conversation, the two leaders had a friendly tone: They addressed each other by their names, and Mr. Scholz is the closest form of German speech.
Mr. Zelensky said the new arms package announced by Germany the day before, amounting to 2.7 billion euros, or about $2.95 billion, was “very important and powerful assistance.” But emphasizing his quest for more powerful and sophisticated weapons, he noted that Germany is now the second largest backer of Ukraine after the United States and joked, “We are working to bring Germany to first place at that.”
It is unclear whether the weapons promised in the new package will arrive in time for Ukraine’s expected counter-offensive against Russian forces. When asked by journalists whether Ukraine had received what it needed to launch an offensive, Mr. Zelensky said, “A few more visits, and it will be enough.”
The Ukrainian government has repeatedly urged its allies to supply fighter jets, and Mr. Zelensky told reporters on Sunday that during his recent visit to European capitals he had pushed for the production a “fighter jet coalition” and asked Berlin to support that effort.
But Mr. Scholz avoided any direct response to that message, pointing to the weapons already delivered to Germany and also promising the latest package. “That’s what we Germans are targeting now,” he said.
In addition to fighter jets, Ukraine is asking for weapons that can target Russian military infrastructure and troop concentrations far from the front lines. With a counter-offensive approaching, these needs became more urgent.
The attack on Ukraine could come in the south and east of the country, where Russia holds territory. While Kyiv has not said when or where the push will begin, Ukraine appears to be stepping up attacks on Russian fortresses and military installations in preparation.
A report published Sunday by The Washington Post, citing leaked documents, said Mr. Zelensky had privately discussed more aggressive attacks on Russia, including an attempt to occupy Russian villages or hit infrastructure within Russian territory.
But in Berlin, Mr. Zelensky insisted that his military was not interested in attacking Russian territory.
“We are liberating our legitimate territories,” he said. “We don’t have time or energy for anything else. Nor do we have the weapons left to do so. ” A counter-offensive, he said, will focus on the recovery of “territories that are not legitimately occupied according to our constitution, within the framework of our legitimate borders, recognized by the whole world.”
The recent trip of Mr. Zelensky is very different from before the war, when his decision to stay in Kyiv despite the Russian attack became a symbol of Ukrainian dissent.
The trips reflect the Ukrainian leader’s efforts to strengthen relations with European countries at a time when China is positioning itself as a potential peacemaker in the conflict. In February, Beijing released what it described as a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine, although Western officials criticized it as lacking substance.
In April, President Xi Jinping of China had a phone call with Mr. Zelensky, the first since the full-scale invasion began. China’s top diplomat, Qin Gang, visited Europe last week, and on Monday a Chinese government envoy will begin a trip that is scheduled to include stops in Ukraine and Russia in an attempt to aid negotiations. at the end of the war.
Mr. Zelensky’s tour of allied capitals also comes amid concerns among European officials that American support for Ukraine could fade if a Republican is elected president next year. Some Ukrainian and German officials said privately that Mr. Zelensky may be hoping to persuade Mr. Scholz to play a more influential role leading European support for the war and any potential peace negotiations. But the chancellor proved reluctant to take on a bigger role.
The Ukrainian government says its preconditions for any peace negotiations include a complete Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory and an end to hostilities. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has shown no signs of being willing to make concessions.
Mr. Scholz expressed support on Sunday for the Ukrainian position – perhaps an effort to allay earlier concerns from Kyiv and other critics that he and Mr. Macron may try to force Ukraine into an agreement.
“Ukraine rightly and with our full support demands that this does not mean a simple freezing of the war and that a dictate of peace is made from the Russian side,” he said in a press conference. “Russia must withdraw its troops. Without that, it will not work.”
On Sunday afternoon, Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Scholz traveled together to the western German city of Aachen, where Mr. Zelensky received the prestigious Charlemagne award. The award is given to people who are considered to have done the most to promote European unity.
Past winners include Winston Churchill, Pope Francis, Angela Merkel and Bill Clinton. The decision of the judges to give the prize to Mr. Zelensky and the people of Ukraine emphasized both how the war united Europeans and the irony that Ukraine is not part of the European Union, despite Kyiv’s strong requests to join.
Here’s what else happened in the war in Ukraine:
Russian toll: The Russian defense ministry said on Sunday that two Russian colonels were killed while repelling Ukrainian attacks around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. The rare recognition of the deaths of senior personnel underscores the brutality of the long-running battle for the city, which has become the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The announcement came a day after Russian state news media reported that at least two Russian military aircraft had crashed in the country’s Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine. The Tass news agency said the crashes involved an SU-34 fighter jet and an MI-8 helicopter. Aleksandr Bogomaz, the governor of Bryansk, said on Telegram that a helicopter had crashed but did not give details of the cause. Russian military bloggers, citing video footage circulating widely on social media, said at least three planes had crashed in Bryansk. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting accounts, and there was no comment from the Russian defense ministry.
Always Meheut, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Vivek Shankar and Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed to the report.