EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday that war-torn Ukraine would have Europe's support for "as long as it takes", as she visited Kyiv for talks on closer integration with the bloc.
Her trip coincided with a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his increasingly close ally Chinese leader Xi Jinping in ex-Soviet Uzbekistan, where the men hailed their strategic ties in defiance of the West. It also comes as Ukrainian forces consolidate gains against Russian forces in the east of the country in a dramatic offensive aided by Western weapons.
Von der Leyen said Thursday's visit was her third to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February, but this one was different. "We will never be able to match the sacrifice that the Ukrainians are making," she told reporters during a joint press conference with Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky.
"But what we can tell you is that you'll have your European friends by your side as long as it takes," she said. Upon her arrival she noted her discussions with Ukraine's leaders would be about "getting our economies and people closer."
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. Zelensky told the same press conference that his country wants to join the European single market ahead of a decision on whether to grant Kyiv full EU membership.
Zelensky promises 'victory'
The historic candidacy 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 since Moscow invaded in February by hitting Russia with economic penalties.
Many members of the bloc have supplied Kyiv with advanced weapons that have helped Ukrainian forces in recent weeks recapture swathes of territory. Von der Leyen said just ahead of her trip that the successive waves of EU sanctions against Russia 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. 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. Ukrainian energy facilities, including Europe's biggest atomic plant, have been hit by Russian strikes and Zelensky on Thursday thanked the EU leader for linking Kyiv to "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," he said.
Putin praises Xi's stance
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, adding that the military situation "remains extremely difficult."
Local officials in the region around Zelensky's hometown of Kryvyi Rih reported fresh Russian strikes Thursday after attacks damaged a dam and saw dozens of homes flooded.
In the eastern Donetsk region, which has been partially controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014, fresh shelling killed two civilians and left another 13 wounded. In the Ukrainian-held Donetsk town of Bakhmut, AFP journalists said streets were deserted and the sound of nearby artillery was audible in the town's centre.
Flames were still licking a residential building hit by Russian strikes overnight and plumes of thick smoke were rising as firefighters battled the blaze. At the meeting in Uzbekistan, Putin blasted attempts to create a "unipolar world" and praised China's stance on the conflict.
"We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis," Putin told Xi. Beijing has not explicitly endorsed Moscow's invasion but it has steadily built economic and strategic ties with Russia over the six months of the war.