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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Zelenskyy visits Germany, praising weapons pledge and seeking jets

Ukrainian soldiers west of Bakhmut, just after rotating out following a month of fighting inside the city, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Saturday, May 13, 2023.

By Erika Solomon

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine met with Germany’s leaders in Berlin on Sunday, his latest stop on a diplomatic tour aimed at shoring up support among Western allies and pushing for faster deliveries of weapons as a Ukrainian counteroffensive looms in the 15-month war.

Speaking to journalists side by side at the chancellery Sunday morning, Zelenskyy and Chancellor Olaf Scholz sought to highlight an improving relationship with exchanges of gratitude and praise. But their responses to some questions — namely on fighter jets — reflected how Ukraine is still struggling to gain traction with Germany and other Western allies on some of its demands.

Zelenskyy was escorted to Berlin by 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 greeted with military honors by Scholz at the chancellery.

The grand reception came a day after Germany announced its largest package of military aid yet for Ukraine as the two nations seek to turn the page on months of rocky relations.

“German air defense systems, artillery, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are saving Ukrainian lives and bringing us closer to victory,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “Germany is a reliable ally!”

Zelenskyy arrived in Paris on Sunday evening for a dinner with President Emmanuel Macron to discuss France’s military and humanitarian aid, as well as possible future peace talks, according to a statement from Macron’s office. The stop in Paris capped a two-day tour of European capitals in which Zelenskyy also held talks with Pope Francis and the Italian prime minister in Rome on Saturday.

In Germany, Zelenskyy and Scholz aimed to improve ties after a year marred by diplomatic sniping and wrangling over Berlin’s initially slower pace in delivering weapons to Ukraine. Both Ukraine and Germany are keenly aware that their relationship will be more important than ever before Ukraine’s looming counteroffensive against Russia, in which an influx of sophisticated Western-supplied weapons is expected to play a key role.

Scholz said that the Ukrainian leader’s visit sent a “strong message” and vowed that Germany would provide support — including weapons — against Russian aggression for “as long as necessary.”

Speaking to journalists after one-on-one talks, the two leaders struck a friendly tone: They addressed each other by their first names, and Scholz used the German language’s more intimate form of address.

Zelenskyy said that the new arms package Germany had announced the previous day, totaling 2.7 billion euros, or about $2.95 billion, was “very important and strong help.” But underlining his quest for ever more powerful and sophisticated weapons, he noted that Germany was now Ukraine’s second largest backer after the United States and joked, “We are working to bring Germany to first place on that.”

It was not clear whether the weapons pledged in the new package would arrive in time for Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces. When asked by journalists whether Ukraine had received what was necessary to mount an offensive, Zelenskyy said, “A few more visits, and it will be sufficient.”

The Ukrainian government has repeatedly urged its allies to supply fighter jets, and Zelenskyy told journalists Sunday that on his recent visits to European capitals he had pushed to create a “fighter jet coalition” and had asked Berlin to support that effort.

But Scholz evaded any direct reply to that message, pointing instead to the weapons Germany had already provided and also pledged in the latest package. “That is what we as Germans are focusing on now,” he said.

In addition to fighter jets, Ukraine has been requesting weapons capable of targeting Russian military infrastructure and troop concentrations far behind the front lines. With a counteroffensive looming, those demands have become more urgent.

Ukraine’s assault could come in the south and east of the country, where Russia holds territory. While Ukraine has not said when or where the push will begin, the country appears to have been intensifying attacks on Russian military strongholds and installations in preparation.

A report published Sunday by The Washington Post, citing leaked documents, said that Zelenskyy had in private discussed far more aggressive attacks on Russia, including trying to occupy Russian villages or hit infrastructure within Russian territory.

But in Berlin, Zelenskyy insisted that his military was not interested in attacking Russian territory.

“We are liberating our legitimate territories,” he said. “We have neither time nor strength for anything else. Nor do we have any weapons left with which to do so.” A counteroffensive, he said, would focus on reclaiming “territories illegitimately conquered according to our constitution, within the framework of our legitimate borders, which are recognized worldwide.”

Zelenskyy’s recent travel stands in stark contrast to earlier in the war, when his decision to stay in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, despite the Russian onslaught became a symbol of Ukrainian defiance.

The trips reflect the Ukrainian leader’s efforts to bolster relations with European nations at a time when China has been positioning itself as a potential peacemaker in the conflict. In February, Beijing issued what it described as a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine, though Western officials criticized it as lacking substance.

In April, President Xi Jinping of China had a phone call with Zelenskyy, 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 help negotiate an end to the war.

The Ukrainian government has said its preconditions for any peace negotiations include a complete Russian withdrawal from all of Ukraine’s territory and an end to hostilities. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has shown no signs of willingness to make concessions.

Scholz voiced support Sunday for the Ukrainian position — probably an effort to allay previous concerns from Kyiv and other critics that he and Macron might try to pressure Ukraine into an agreement.

“Ukraine already rightly and with our full support demands that this cannot mean simply freezing the war and that a dictate peace is formulated from the Russian side,” he said at a news conference. “Russia has to withdraw its troops, without that, it won’t work.”

On Sunday afternoon, Zelenskyy and Scholz traveled together to the western German city of Aachen, where Zelenskyy received the prestigious Charlemagne award. The award is bestowed on people deemed to have done the most to promote European unity.

Previous winners have included Winston Churchill, Pope Francis, Angela Merkel and Bill Clinton. The judges’ decision to award the prize to Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine underscored both how the war has united Europeans and the irony that Ukraine is not a part of the European Union, despite Kyiv’s strong entreaties to join.

Here’s what else is happening with the war in Ukraine:

— Russian toll: Russia’s defense ministry said Sunday that two Russian colonels were killed while repulsing Ukrainian attacks around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. The rare acknowledgment of senior personnel deaths underlined the ferocity of the prolonged battle for the city, which has been the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The announcement came one day after the 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 provide details on the cause. Russian military bloggers, citing video footage circulating widely on social media, said that at least three aircraft had crashed in Bryansk. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting accounts, and there was no comment from Russia’s defense ministry.

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