Hailed as hero at EU summit, Zelensky urges faster arms supplies

BRUSSELS (AFP): Hailed as a European hero on his arrival in Brussels, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky urged EU leaders to accelerate the promised delivery of modern long-range weapons.

The Ukrainian leader warned during an EU summit Thursday that he could not return empty-handed from what was only his second foreign trip since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion just under a year ago.

With a renewed Russian offensive piling pressure on Kyiv’s forces in the east, the former actor turned war leader urged his allies to turn what he said were their “positive signals” into “concrete” words.

After Wednesday’s visits to London and Paris to lobby Britain, France and Germany for modern fighter jets and long-range missiles, Zelensky flew on to Brussels to address EU leaders and the European parliament.

MEPs gave him a standing ovation as he portrayed Ukraine as the country fighting to defend Europe’s eastern borders and urged a rapid welcome into the EU fold.

“We are defending against the most anti-European force of the modern world — we are defending ourselves, we Ukrainians on the battlefield, along with you,” Zelensky told MEPs.

After the parliamentary address, Zelensky joined the 27 leaders of the EU member states as a special guest at their regular summit, invited by the European Council president to make an opening address.

“I have to thank you personally for your unwavering support of our country and our aspirations, our aspirations to live in a united, free Europe,” he told them.

But he also warned that Ukraine needs to receive artillery, munitions, modern tanks, long-range missiles and fighter jets faster than Russia can prepare what he said would be a dangerous new offensive.

He said he saw “positive signals, concerning the respective weapons” from EU leaders and expressed hope those murmurs would become a “concrete voice”.

After hours of talks, Zelensky left the summit and had an audience with Belgium’s King Philippe.

– Kremlin warning –

European Council president and summit host Charles Michel insisted that the summit had allowed EU leaders to “make it clear that they are ready to provide more military support”.

“The next weeks and the next months will probably be decisive,” he said.

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger tweeted that he had heard Zelensky’s plea for weapons “including MiG-29s (fighter jets) to protect your sky and people,” adding: “I will work on it.”

But some EU leaders were warier, fearing it could drag the West closer to direct conflict with Russia.

“There are many sensitive issues to be discussed, the pros and cons,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned that even if fighter jets were to be sent to Kyiv, it would not be in “the coming weeks”.

“I’m not ruling anything out … but that doesn’t correspond to today’s requirements,” Macron said Friday after the Brussels summit.

“It is essential the allies favour the most useful equipment” and “the fastest”, he added, citing the Caesar guns and the MAMBA medium-range surface-to-air defence system supplied by France.

Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki said his country “will not be the first to hand over fighters” but would welcome others leading the way.

The Kremlin reacted with a grim warning.

“We see this as a growing engagement of Germany, UK, France in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The boundary between indirect and direct engagement is gradually disappearing. We can only regret it,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

He added that could “lead to an escalation of tensions” and would not change Russia’s military objectives.

NATO and the EU along with the United States have been the main backers of Ukraine since President Vladimir Putin’s Russia unleashed its invasion on February 24 last year.

EU leaders touted the 67 billion euros ($72 billion) they have spent on military and financial aid to Kyiv, including funds spent on hosting four million Ukrainian refugees.

European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen pledged a new round of sanctions to punish Russian “propagandists” and cut another 10 billion euros worth of Moscow’s exports.

Along with Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged that Europe would back Ukraine until its eventual victory.

– ‘Peace camp’ –

But one leader sounded a different note. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EU leader closest to Putin, did not applaud as Zelensky joined his colleagues for the group photo.

In a social media post, he said Hungary would send Kyiv humanitarian aid but called for an immediate ceasefire, rather than a Ukrainian victory.

“Hungary belongs to the peace camp!” he declared.

In frontline eastern Ukraine, the Lugansk regional governor warned that Russia was attacking Ukrainian forces near the town of Kreminna and “systematically destroying” three nearby communities.

Moscow says Russian forces were advancing on Bakhmut and Vugledar — two key centres of fighting in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, now the flashpoint of the war.

Macron mulls stripping Putin of top honour

French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday he might strip his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin of France’s top honour, but is waiting for the “right moment” to do so.

Putin received the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’Honneur, the top rank in France’s honours system, in 2006 at a time when Moscow enjoyed better relations with Paris and the West.

But since Putin ordered last year’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, ties have all but broken down and the European Union has imposed a range of tough economic sanctions.

On Wednesday, Macron awarded Putin’s enemy Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky the top honour, but he has yet to formally remove it from Putin.

Speaking after an EU summit in which leaders considered stepping up weapons deliveries to Ukraine, Macron admitted that the question of Putin’s medal was “symbolic but important”.

But, while Macron said he believed he had the right to revoke the honour, he added: “It is not a decision that I made today.”

These decisions, he said, “are always meaningful and I think you have to appreciate the right moment to make them”.

Macron warns impossible to send Ukraine jets in coming weeks

French President Emmanuel Macron warned Friday that even if Ukraine’s European allies decide to send Kyiv fighter jets they could not be sent in “the coming weeks”.

“I’m not ruling anything out … but that doesn’t correspond to today’s requirements,” Macron said after an EU summit in Brussels attended by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Russia has launched a renewed offensive in Ukraine’s war-torn east and Zelensky came to London, Paris and Brussels this week looking for more advanced weapons for his forces.

Ukraine has a shopping list of western combat jets, long-range missiles and heavy tanks — but is also facing critical shortages in more basic supplies like artillery shells.

Britain has offered to train Ukrainian pilots on Western jets, while Poland and Slovakia are considering sending more of the Soviet-designed Mig-29 fighters that Kyiv already uses.

But Ukraine’s allies are nervous that deploying advanced Western fighter jets would provoke a further escalation by Moscow and risk open conflict between NATO and Russia.

Macron and the other EU leaders in Brussels hailed Zelensky as a hero and promised to stand by Ukraine until victory — but they were cautious on his quest for fighter jets.

“It is essential the allies favour the most useful equipment” and “the fastest”, Macron argued, citing the Caesar guns and the MAMBA medium-range surface-to-air defence system supplied by the France.

It may be necessary to step up delivery of artillery pieces and munitions to allow Ukraine to launch or resist ground offensives, he added, promising to “work on it in the coming days”.