The West must prevent Ukraine having a gun “put to its head” by Moscow in peace talks, the UK warned yesterday as the leaders of France, Germany and Italy visited the country for the first time since Russia invaded.
Emmanuel Macron has said France will be a “mediating power” in any negotiations, but Ukraine fears the visiting leaders may pressure Kyiv to agree to a quick and unjust peace deal in order to protect their economies.
“We stand with the Ukrainians without ambiguity. Ukraine must resist and win,” the French president said in an attempt to draw a line under criticism he has faced for warning Moscow could not be “humiliated” in defeat.
The leaders strongly backed awarding Ukraine candidate status to become a member of the EU.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “We came to Kyiv today with a clear message – Ukraine belongs to the European family. Germany wants a positive decision in favour of Ukraine as an EU candidate country.”
Speaking at a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels, Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, said it was for Ukraine to choose “the manner and level of its negotiations” and it was vital it did that from a position of strength.
“It is not for us to impose a view but it is also for us to protect Ukraine from effectively having a gun to its head when it is supposed to negotiate,” he said as the UK announced it was sending more than 20 Belgian long-range, self-propelled weapons to Ukraine.
Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary, announced sanctions after the forced transfer and adoption in Russia of 2,000 Ukrainian children removed from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Kyiv has accused France, Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy, of dragging their feet in their support for Ukraine, accusing them of being slow to deliver weapons. Ukraine also wants fresh sanctions imposed on Moscow.
At a joint news conference with Mr Macron, Mr Scholz and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said: “Every day of delay or postponed decisions is an opportunity for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians or destroy our cities. There is a direct correlation – the more powerful weapons we receive, the faster we can liberate our land.”
Mr Macron announced he would send six extra artillery systems to Kyiv and promised Europe would stand by Ukraine until it was victorious. Germany has promised multiple-launch rocket systems.
Mr Scholz has dismissed allegations he has held back much-needed military support, saying Germany was one of the biggest military and financial backers of Ukraine.
He said German support would continue “as long as it is necessary for Ukraine’s fight”.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian general has threatened to use Western weapons to blow up a bridge linking mainland Russian with Crimea.
Maj Gen Dmytro Marchenko, who has been leading the defence of the Mykolaiv region in the south of Ukraine since the war began, told a website Kyiv considers the 227-metre Kerch Strait Bridge a legitimate target.
“This will be our number one target,” he said when asked what Ukraine would do with the advanced weapons it has been seeking. “We have to tear this umbilical cord to cut off [Russian] reinforcements. Then Russians will panic.”
Many Western leaders have been wary of sending long-range artillery to Ukraine, fearing Kyiv could launch retaliatory strikes against Russia, which could potentially spark an even bigger conflict.
Russia has been using the €3.15bn bridge it built over the Strait of Kerch after its 2014 annexation of Crimea to bring in troops and weaponry to the Black Sea peninsula that served as a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine’s south in February.
Telegraph Media Group Limited