KYIV, Ukraine—The leaders of France, Germany and Italy met with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine as the war of attrition with Russia reaches a pivotal moment and Kyiv amplifies its calls for Western military support to counter Moscow’s artillery barrages.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi reached Kyiv by train after huddling en route. Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, posted a video showing the three leaders exiting a platform at a Kyiv railway station accompanied by armed guards.
“We’re present, focused,” Mr. Macron said, describing the visit as a message of European unity. The leaders planned to visit a site where massacres occurred and then hold talks with Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Macron said, adding: “I think this is an important moment.”
The leaders’ visit is being closely watched in Ukraine and in capitals across Europe, where divisions have begun to emerge over how to bring the nearly four-month conflict to an end. Kyiv says any territorial concessions to Moscow are off the table and only a massive transfer of weapons and ammunition will hold advancing Russian forces at bay.
Thursday marked the first time leaders of the European Union’s largest economies have visited Ukraine since the start of the war, following trips made by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Polish President Andrzej Duda and many others. Since Russia withdrew forces from around Kyiv in early April following its failed offensive to capture Ukraine’s capital, the city has been coming back to life and seeing an influx of residents returning to homes they fled when the war started.
But the high-level visit also comes as Moscow continues its brutal offensive against Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces are defending a sprawling chemical plant that is one of their last lines of defense in the strategic city along the Siverskyi Donets River. Controlling the area would allow Russia to move on the remaining towns of the Luhansk region.
“We want to not only demonstrate solidarity, but also to show that the aid that we are providing—financial, humanitarian but also in terms of weapons—will be continued,” Mr. Scholz said. The support will continue as long as necessary for Ukraine’s “war of independence,” he said.
Paris and Berlin see diplomacy as the only way to ultimately resolve the conflict and find a long-term security arrangement that allows European nations to cope with a bellicose neighbor armed with nuclear weapons. That stance was underscored Wednesday when Mr. Macron said Ukraine and his allies will have to hold talks with Moscow once the West has done everything in its power to help Ukraine hold off Russia’s invasion and, he hopes, emerge victorious.
Eastern European countries, which have been threatened by Russia in the past, consider its defeat on the battlefield of Ukraine a historic opportunity to deter future aggression and ensure Europe’s wider security. Poland, the Baltic countries and others are backing Ukraine’s calls for faster delivery of heavy weapons and argue that it is required to repel Russian forces and discourage any future incursions into Europe. Ukraine is also in need of weapons to blunt Russia’s naval advantage in the Black Sea.
The divide was thrown into relief earlier this month when the French leader came under searing criticism in Eastern Europe for an interview he gave to French newspapers, saying: “We must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.”
Mr. Macron and other European leaders are also walking an economic tightrope. The war is fueling a surge in the price of food, fuel and other essentials, putting political pressure on Western governments to tame inflation.
Europe is also bracing for a loss of Russian natural-gas supplies that power factories and households across the continent. A scramble is under way to fill its natural-gas stores to avoid a winter energy crisis, but Moscow has already begun throttling back on deliveries.
Data from the Nordstream pipeline to Germany show that gas shipments Thursday morning were less than half what they were earlier this week after Russia’s Gazprom PJSC said flows would fall further. Moscow has blamed the reduction on technical issues that German Economy Minister Robert Habeck dismissed, calling reduced flows “obviously a strategy to unsettle and drive up prices.”
The latest drop in imports from Russia drove benchmark European gas prices up 8.5% Thursday. The rise added to gains in recent days, taking the advance in prices over the past week to 58%.
European leaders are also under pressure from Mr. Zelensky to clear the way for Ukraine to join the European Union, saying that failure to do so would be a huge blow to the country’s hopes of integration with the West and hurt morale on the battlefield.
But the issue is deeply divisive among EU capitals, especially in western European countries such as France, Denmark and the Netherlands, where opposition to enlarging the bloc has meant that no new country has joined the EU since Croatia almost a decade ago.
French officials have warned Ukraine that any membership bid could take decades to complete, and Mr. Macron last month floated a new notion of a European political community that could anchor Kyiv in some of the EU’s institutions without giving it full-fledged membership.
The diplomatic efforts have at times struggled to keep pace with a fast-moving conflict. After failing in their initial campaign to capture Kyiv, Russian forces have regrouped in eastern Ukraine, where they have made deep inroads. Russia has deployed long-range artillery to outgun Ukrainian troops, who are taking heavy casualties.
On Wednesday, the US announced it was sending $1 billion in new military assistance to help Ukraine repulse Russia’s invasion, but the package of artillery, ammunition and coastal defense systems amount to a fraction of what Kyiv has requested. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba thanked the US for the new round of assistance but stressed that “we urgently need more heavy weapons delivered more regularly.”
France has supplied Ukraine with heavy artillery such as howitzers to help it wage what is essentially becoming an artillery war in the eastern Donbas area, but Kyiv says the supplies aren’t enough. Various Western countries have pledged assistance to Ukraine in recent weeks, promising deliveries of heavy weapons and financial aid for the purposes of reconstruction. But analysts say much of the equipment promised hasn’t arrived.
The US has delivered less than half of the military aid committed to Ukraine, according to a report by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German think tank. Germany, whose reluctance to send weapons has been strongly criticized by Ukraine, hasn’t so far sent heavy weapons and only a third of its promised military support has actually been shipped to Ukraine, the think tank said in a report published Thursday.
Write to Matthew Luxmoore at Matthew.Luxmoore@wsj.com and Stacy Meichtry at firstname.lastname@example.org
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