Zelensky meets German President in Berlin
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has met with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and thanked his government for its “fantastic solidarity” as he secured a big boost in military aid on his first visit to the country since Russia’s invasion.
Mr Zelensky arrived in Berlin from Rome, where he met with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Pope Francis. He flew on a German government plane escorted over German airspace by fighter jets of the Luftwaffe air force, arriving in the middle of the night.
Wearing his trademark khaki combat trousers and a black sweater, the Ukrainian leader was first greeted with military honors by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, before heading over to the chancellery to meet with Mr Scholz.
“In the most challenging time in the modern history of Ukraine, Germany proved to be our true friend and reliable ally,” Mr Zelenskiy wrote in the guest book of the German presidency.
“Together we will win and bring peace back to Europe.”
He was expected to hold a news conference with Mr Scholz before later heading to Aachen in west Germany to receive the prestigious Charlemagne prize in honour of services to Europe.
Germany, which is Europe’s largest economy, faced criticism at the start of the war for what some called a hesitant response, but it has become one of Ukraine’s biggest providers of financial and military assistance.
The government announced €2.7 billion of military aid to Ukraine yesterday, its biggest such package yet since Russia’s invasion in February last year, and pledged further support for Kyiv for as long as necessary.
The package contained 30 of Germany’s Leopard tanks as well as fighting vehicles, reconnaissance drones and four Iris-T air defence systems seen as crucial to prevent Russian missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure.
Mr Zelensky hailed this as a “powerful package” in a tweet, indicating that he aimed to discuss with Germany officials weapons supply as well as air defence, reconstruction, Ukraine’s candidacy for membership of the European Union and security.
Berlin’s government district came to a standstill this morning due to tight security around his visit, with some public transport suspended, helicopters whirling overhead and snipers on rooftops.
Mr Zelensky last visited Germany for the Munich Security Council in February last year, just before the war broke out. Germany was constrained in its support for Ukraine at that time both by its energy dependence on Russia and the pacifism that emerged from its bloody 20th century history.
This required a major policy upheaval and a shift in mindset that Mr Scholz dubbed a “Zeitenwende”, or turn of era, in a landmark speech just days after the war broke out.
At the nadir of relations, a year ago, Ukraine’s then ambassador Andriy Melnyk accused Mr Scholz of behaving like an “offended liver sausage” when he did not immediately accept an invitation by Mr Zelensky to visit Kyiv.
Earlier this year Germany came under criticism from allies too over its hesitation to send battle tanks to Ukraine, with central and eastern European officials in particular saying they expected more leadership.
Berlin has repeatedly pushed back at these suggestions, stressing its rapid policy turnaround and major aid and weapons shipments.
Mr Melnyk’s successor, Oleksii Makeiev, said in March that Germany was now taking more of a leadership role.
Germany no longer receives any direct gas imports from Russia despite Russian gas accounting for some half of its gas imports in 2021. It has also taken in around one million Ukrainian refugees.
Meanwhile, on the front line, near the eastern flashpoint town of Bakhmut, both sides claimed to be making progress.
“Our soldiers are moving forward in some areas of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” commander of the Ukrainian ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi said on social media.
Russia said its forces were still pushing inside Bakhmut.
“In the Donetsk direction, assault detachments liberated a block in the northwestern part of the city of Artemovsk,” the defence ministry said, referring to Bakhmut by its Russian name.
Western allies have delivered increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine. Britain this week announced it was sending Storm Shadow missiles, becoming the first country to send longer-range arms to Kyiv.
Russia described it as “an extremely hostile step” and yesterday accused Kyiv of using the British missiles to target civilian sites in eastern Ukraine, and wounding six children.
In Rome, Mr Zelensky said he discussed with Pope Francis the fate of “tens of thousands of children” that Kyiv says were deported to Russia, as well as his plans for peace.
Mr Zelensky also thanked Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni “for helping to save lives”.
“I am convinced that Ukraine will win and be reborn stronger, more proud and more prosperous than before,” said Ms Meloni in response.