Emmanuel Macron hints at Russian war crimes as western European leaders visit Kyiv
EU leaders meet with Zelensky as more weapons pledged from West
French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that there are signs of war crimes in a Kyiv suburb following "massacres" by Russian forces.
He spoke in the town of Irpin in the greater Kyiv area while on a visit with the German, Italian and Romanian leaders to show support for Ukraine.
Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Premier Mario Draghi, representing the three largest economies in Europe, travelled to Kyiv together on a special overnight train provided by the Ukrainian authorities.
President Klaus Iohannis of Romania — which borders Ukraine and has been a key destination for Ukrainian refugees — arrived on a separate train.
"Massacres were carried out," said Macron. "We have the first traces of what are war crimes."
While visiting Irpin, Scholz observed that officials must keep the horrible scenes of destruction in mind in all their decisions.
"Innocent civilians have been hit, houses have been destroyed; a whole town has been destroyed in which there was no military infrastructure at all," Scholz said. "And that says a great deal about the brutality of the Russian war of aggression, which is simply out for destruction and conquest. We must bear that in mind in everything that we decide."
Italian Premier Mario Draghi said during the tour of Irpin that Ukraine's backers will rebuild "everything" with European help.
"They destroyed the nurseries, the playgrounds, and everything will be rebuilt," Draghi said.
Visit at crucial juncture in fighting
The visit, which included a meeting with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, carries heavy symbolic weight.
"It's a message of European unity for the Ukrainian people, support now and in the future, because the weeks to come will be very difficult," Macron said.
The Russian forces are pressing their offensive in the eastern Donbas region, slowly but steadily gaining ground on the badly outmanned and outgunned Ukrainian forces, who are pleading for more arms from Western allies.
In past weeks and months, a number of other European leaders have made the long trip overland to show solidarity with a nation under attack.
But the western European leaders until now had stayed away, with Scholz, Macron and Draghi also receiving criticism leaning into the prospect of a negotiated settlement with Russian President Vladimir Putin just weeks into the Feb. 24 invasion.
Macron raised the ire of Ukrainian officials earlier this month with comments to domestic media in France.
"We must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means," Macron said then. "I am convinced that it is France's role to be a mediating power."
Several air raid sirens rang out on Thursday while the European leaders were in their hotel preparing for the rest of their visit, and Kyiv authorities urged people to seek shelter.
As he left the hotel, Macron, putting his hand on his heart, said in English: "I want to show my admiration for the Ukrainian people."
'Understand our pain'
The visit came as EU leaders prepare to make a decision June 23-24 on Ukraine's request to become a candidate for EU membership. The four leaders backed the bid for Ukraine to join the bloc.
Hopes were high among Ukrainians that the visit could mark a turning point by opening the way to significant new arms supplies.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said the visit will not bring anything if the leaders ask Ukraine to conclude a peace treaty with Russia.
"Today it will be one territory, tomorrow another one, the day after tomorrow another," said Haidai.
Tamara Malko, a resident of Pokrovsk, in the Donestsk region of Eastern Ukraine, said Macron and Scholz had been "very cold" toward Ukrainians so far, and hoped for a change.
"We want peace very much, and have high hopes for Macron and Scholz," she said. "We want them to see and understand our pain."
NATO ready to redeploy troops as needed
Scholz had resisted travelling to Kyiv, saying he didn't want to "join the queue of people who do a quick in-out for a photo opportunity." Instead, Scholz said, a trip should focus on doing "concrete things."
Germany on Wednesday announced that it will provide Ukraine with three multiple launch rocket systems of the kind that Kyiv has said it urgently needs to defend itself against Russia's invasion.
That was part of a co-ordinated effort that saw the U.S. and Canada also announce additional military aid.
NATO defence ministers including Canada's Anita Anand were wrapping a two-day session in Brussels on Thursday.
The ministers discussed ways to bolster forces and deterrence along the military alliance's eastern borders to dissuade Russia from planning further aggression.
NATO says it has placed over 40,000 troops under its direct command, mainly on the eastern flank, and is looking at how it can further strengthen its presence, readiness, and capabilities.
"This will mean more NATO forward-deployed combat formations, to strengthen our battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance, more air, sea and cyber defences, as well as pre-positioned equipment and weapons stockpiles," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after the meeting.
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. and its allies will take steps to rapidly deploy troops if needed.
Hundreds trapped at Donbas city site
The main battle in recent weeks has been over the eastern city of Severodonetsk. On Wednesday, Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical factory there while hundreds of civilians ignored a Russian order to surrender.
All remaining bridges linking the city with Ukrainian-held territory on the opposite bank of the 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 is 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.