Europe will 'stand by your side' says von der Leyen on visit to Ukraine

·4-min read
AP - Efrem Lukatsky

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday that Ukraine would have the backing of Brussels "for as long as it takes" as Russia's invasion of Ukraine nears its seventh month. The comments came during her visit to Kyiv, her first since the country became a candidate for bloc membership in June.

"We will never be able to match the sacrifice that the Ukrainians are making ... but what we can tell you is that you'll have your European friends by your side as long as it takes," she told reporters during a joint press conference with Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelensky thanked von der Leyen, who was visiting Kyiv for the third time since the beginning of the invasion, for her "personal presence in the life of our country and your personal support of Ukraine".

Ukraine is eager to join the European single market ahead of a decision on whether to grant Kyiv full EU membership, Zelensky said.

"For us, a pressing issue is the question of Ukraine joining the EU single market while we're on the way to EU membership status. I'm sure it will happen and it will be one of our country's most important victories."

The two spoke about Ukrainian energy facilities repeatedly hit by Russian forces and a European energy crisis as Moscow halts of disrupts vital supplies.

"We should help each other" on energy, the Ukrainian president said, adding they were "thankful for having joined European power grids".

"It's in everyone's interest: European countries can get cheap electricity from Ukraine" and "we'll be able to get money for salaries and social payments in such difficult times".

Von der Leyen also confirmed the 5 billion euro aid package for Ukraine, proposed by the Commission at the beginning of September.

Moscow on edge

"So much has changed. Ukraine is now an EU candidate," Von der Leyen said on social media, ahead of her visit.

Ukraine gained EU candidacy status in June at the same time as ex-Soviet Moldova, which borders Ukraine and like its neighbour has had Russian troops stationed in an eastern breakaway region.

The historic vote angered Moscow, which has tried to retain political and military influence in both countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

EU countries have staunchly supported Ukraine by hitting Russia with waves of economic penalties.

Many members of the bloc have also supplied Kyiv with advanced weapons that have helped Ukrainian forces in recent weeks recapture swathes of territory from Russia.

Sanctions to stay

Von der Leyen said that the successive waves of EU sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine would remain and that Europeans must keep their resolve against Moscow.

"I want to make it very clear, the sanctions are here to stay," she told the European Parliament during her annual State of the Union speech on Wednesday.

The Kremlin maintains that Russia has weathered the economic penalties and Moscow has responded by reducing or halting entirely gas flows to European countries.

With winter fast approaching, this has forced the EU to source alternative supplies, agree plans to cut consumption and roll out financial support in the face of skyrocketing prices.

The EU Commission leader's trip coincides with a highly-touted meeting between the leaders of Russia and China in ex-Soviet Uzbekistan for a regional summit that Moscow and Beijing have said offers an alternative to Western global influence.

Military gains

Meanwhile, Ukraine and its allies however have been buoyed by gains in the eastern Kharkiv region that borders Russia over recent days and Zelensky promised an overall Ukrainian "victory" while visiting the crucial hub of Izyum recaptured this week.

Ukraine's forces have also posted slower, but steady gains in the southern Kherson region near the Black Sea.

The Ukrainian presidency said on Thursday that intense fighting was ongoing around that southern front and that the military situation there "remains extremely difficult."

Military observers have credited the success of Ukraine's pushback into the east to Western-supplied arms, particularly long-range precision artillery, and on the training of Ukrainian forces by Western allies.

The Ukrainian military announced on social media Wednesday that some 5,000 Ukrainian military personnel had been trained as part of a joint programme with the United Kingdom.

(with wires)