When the loud sound of air raid sirens pierced through the relative calm of Kyiv on Thursday morning, it was a stark reminder for French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi that they were visiting a country under attack.
Not that they needed one.
Like other leaders before them, they traveled to the Ukrainian capital on a special train that set off from Poland in the middle of the night and was guarded by dozens of heavily armed soldiers.
The three were in Kyiv on a mission to try and smooth out tensions over what the Ukrainian government perceives as a lack of tangible support from their governments.
Macron and Scholz in particular have been on the receiving end of much criticism in recent weeks, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even going as far as suggesting the two were trying to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Macron appeared determined to change the narrative.
Arriving in Kyiv for his first visit since the war started nearly four months ago – and long after a number of other world leaders traveled there – Macron was keen to send a message of support.
Asked by reporters at the train station whether he had a message for the Ukrainian people, the French President said: “A message of European unity addressed to Ukrainian men and women, of support to talk about both the present and the future because the coming weeks, we know, will be very difficult weeks. I want to be in support and at their side.”
But Ukrainian leaders made it clear ahead of the visit that it would take more than words for them to believe France and Germany are serious about their support.
“Thank you for coming here, we have been waiting for you for years, for years, ” Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told Macron on the train platform.
Vereshchuk acknowledged expectations were not high ahead of the visit, but said the meeting was an important signal.
“I’m not sure there will be bright announcements following the meeting but regardless [of] how it will [end] it will be a historical meeting, which would either pave the way to a stronger Europe or to a stronger Ukraine,” she said, speaking in English.
“That three European leaders have come to Ukraine right in the middle of total war, it’s a great signal that strengthens Ukraine and Europe,” she added.
The German government has promised to send more weapons to Ukraine, but it has been criticized for slow delivery. German Minister of Defense Christine Lambrecht said Thursday that three German rocket launchers should be delivered to Ukraine by the end of July or beginning of August.
At a news conference in Kyiv on Thursday, Scholz promised to supply more weapons in the future, saying it will continue “for as long as Ukraine needs our support.”
Earlier this week, Zelensky warned that Russia would continue to push further inland. Once again, he pleaded with Western countries to send more heavy weaponry, which, he said, “has to come quicker” if Ukraine’s allies want to stymie Russia’s territorial ambitions.
“We have shown our strength [to Russia]. And it is important for this strength to be also demonstrated together with us by our Western partners as well,” he said.
German officials have in the past said the delay in deliveries was partly down to the need to train Ukrainian soldiers on how to use the heavy weaponry and Scholz mentioned this again on Thursday.
“We are currently training the Ukrainian military in state-of-the-art weapons, the self-propelled Howitzer 2000 and the Gepard anti-aircraft tank. In addition, I have agreed to supply the modern Iris-T air defense system, which can defend an entire city against air attacks, and the special radar,” the German leader said.
Macron, Draghi and Scholz, joined by the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, spent the morning in Irpin, the site of some of the heaviest fighting in Russia’s failed bid to capture the capital earlier this year. Since Ukraine retook the territory, substantial evidence has emerged of indiscriminate killing of Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops in Irpin and nearby areas.
Macron said that being in Irpin made him think of the heroism of the Ukrainians. “The Ukrainians stopped the Russian army which was descending on Kyiv, so you have to imagine the heroism of the army but also of the Ukrainian population.”
The four European politicians met Zelensky later on Thursday.
Speaking after the meeting, the European Union leaders all gave a boost to Ukraine’s aspirations of joining the bloc.
The EU is expected to make a decision on whether to officially recommend Ukraine for membership in the coming days and the four all expressed their support for the idea of giving Ukraine official candidacy status.
“The Ukrainian people defend every day the values of democracy and freedom that are the basis of the European project, of our project. We cannot delay this process,” Draghi said.
Macron said the status would be accompanied by “a roadmap,” while Scholz said that Ukraine “belongs to the European family,” adding that all candidates had to fulfill ascension criteria concerning democracy and constitutional law.
“Europe is by your side, it will remain so as long as necessary, until the victory is achieved, a victory which will see the return of peace in a free and independent Ukraine,” Macron added.
The group shook hands and smiled for the cameras in front of the sprawling Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, but the atmosphere inside the meeting was likely more tense, given Zelensky’s recent remarks about what he sees as Scholz and Macron’s lack of support for Ukraine.
“[Scholz] and his government must choose not to do a balancing act between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, but to choose which is their priority,” Zelensky told German broadcaster ZDF earlier this week.
He had harsh words for Macron too. The French President has tried to present himself both as an ally to Ukraine – and as an honest broker with Russia.
Macron, in an interview earlier this month, said that “we must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means. I am convinced that it is France’s role to be a mediating power.”
Referring to the French President, Zelensky told the Financial Times that “in order to be a leader, you do not need to consider yourself one, but to behave as a leader.”
CNN’s Mick Krever, Joseph Ataman, Inke Kappele, Dalal Mawad, Pierre Bairin, Hada Messia, Arnaud Siad and Elias Lemercier contributed reporting.