Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday said “the first important steps” of a highly-anticipated military counteroffensive against Russian forces “would be taken soon” as he met with European partners providing his country with weapons.
Speaking to reporters in Rome after meetings with his Italian counterpart and Italy’s prime minister, Zelensky said Ukrainian forces were “preparing very seriously.”
“There will definitely be very serious steps. I cannot tell you (when)… but you will definitely see it and Russia will definitely feel it,” he said. “We believe in victory and believe that the first important steps will be taken soon.”
A senior US military official and a senior Western official told CNN last week that Ukrainian forces had begun “shaping” operations in advance of the counteroffensive.
Shaping involves striking targets such as weapons depots, command centers and armor and artillery systems to prepare the battlefield for advancing forces. It’s a standard tactic made prior to major combined operations.
Describing a “long and fruitful” meeting with Zelensky Saturday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pledged unwavering support for Ukraine, adding that Rome would back any future bid by Kyiv to join NATO.
“We are ready to support a further intensification of Ukraine’s partnership with NATO, we will discuss it in Vilnius at the July summit, it will probably be the central theme” Meloni said.
Earlier, Zelensky met with Pope Francis, who has been outspoken in his support for an end to the war in Ukraine.
In their meeting at the Vatican Saturday, Zelensky and Francis spoke about the humanitarian and political situation in Ukraine caused by the war and the Pope assured his “constant prayer,” according to a statement from the Vatican’s press office.
“Both agreed on the need to continue humanitarian efforts to support the population,” the statement said.
Zelensky said last week that his country still needs “a bit more time” before it launches the counteroffensive, in order to allow some more of the promised Western military aid to arrive in country.
Among those Western backers is Germany, where Zelensky arrived on Sunday in his first visit to the country since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last February.
“Already in Berlin. Weapons. Powerful package. Air defense. Reconstruction. EU. NATO. Security,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter.
Germany’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that it would supply Ukraine with nearly $3 billion more in military aid, including 30 tanks.
It comes after a major policy U-turn earlier this year which saw Berlin announce it would provide Kyiv with Leopard 2 battle tanks. Germany had initially resisted calls to provide weaponry to Ukraine in line with Berlin’s decades-long policy of not supplying lethal weapons to crisis zones.
As Zelensky toured Europe, Russia’s assault on Ukraine continued.
Two people, including a 15-year-old girl, were killed and 10 others wounded Saturday as a result of Russian shelling in the eastern city of Kostiantynivka, Ukrainian officials said on Telegram.
In western Ukraine, at least 21 people were injured following Russian strikes on the city of Khmelnytskyi in the early hours of Saturday, Ukrainian authorities said.
Ukraine’s Air Force said Saturday that 17 out of 21 Russian drones had been intercepted overnight by its air defense system but they were unable to prevent strikes on infrastructure facilities in Khmelnytskyi.
In nearby Ternopil, two people were injured after Russian missiles struck warehouses and a religious organization, local authorities said on Telegram.
The attack came as Ternopil-based electronic duo Tvorchi performed at the Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool, England. The Ukrainian representatives finished sixth.
Meanwhile, a Russia-backed official in Luhansk said two people were hospitalized after a second missile attack in 24 hours on the the occupied eastern region.
In a Telegram post, Darya Lantratova, an official with the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, said the apparent Ukrainian attack was carried out with Storm Shadow cruise missiles
“There were casualties, including civilians. Preliminarily, two people are hospitalized. The military reports that Storm Shadow cruise missiles carried out the strikes,” she said.
Ukraine has not made any official comment on the use of Storm Shadow missiles since Britain announced it had supplied Kyiv with the weapons earlier this week.