*Updates with press remarks by Presidents Von der Leyen and Zelenskyy.
KYIV, UKRAINE – European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday (4 November) arrived on an unannounced visit in Kyiv, just days before the EU’s executive is expected to publish its enlargement progress reports and likely recommend opening accession talks with Ukraine.
Von der Leyen’s visit, her sixth since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, comes as Ukraine is expected to be the focus of next week’s European Commission enlargement report on EU candidate countries’ reform progress.
In mid-December, EU leaders will meet for a summit in Brussels, where they will decide whether to greenlight the opening of formal accession talks with the country and decide over an EU budget top-up that has delayed approval of its €50 billion support package for Ukraine.
Von der Leyen told reporters before her departure on the train to Kyiv that the visit was meant to take stock of a range of issues.
“Of course, the enlargement topic will be at the top of the agenda but also our financial and military support, the 12th sanctions package as well, so a wide basket of issues we have to discuss,” von der Leyen said earlier.
“And the most important message is reassuring that we will stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes,” she added.
While in Kyiv, von der Leyen held meetings with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other senior Ukrainian officials.
Speaking alongside Zelenskyy after their bilateral talks, von der Leyen said Ukraine has made “excellent progress” on the conditions for future EU accession.
“I must say, you have made excellent progress, it is impressive to see (…) We will testify to this next when the Commission will present its report on enlargement,” Von der Leyen said.
Ukraine has “reached many milestones (…) this is the result of hard work,” she told reporters, adding that Kyiv is in the process of completing more reforms.
“If this happens, and I am confident, [then] Ukraine can reach its ambitious goal of moving to the next stage of the accession process,” she added.
Fighting Ukraine fatigue
While Von der Leyen’s flying visit to Ukraine follows similar recent visits to the Western Balkans and Moldova, it was to be about more than just reassuring Kyiv over enlargement.
Over the past weeks, Ukraine and some of the country’s staunchest supporters have voiced concerns that the attention from the US and its Western allies will shift towards the Middle East as worries about the Israel-Hamas war potentially destabilising the region grow.
Kyiv is also worried about the future of US support, as their American ally struggles to secure international aid in the face of a divided US Congress ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked the West not to falter in supporting Ukraine.
“Of course, we lose out from the events in the Middle East,” he had said in an interview with TIME magazine.
“Exhaustion with the war rolls along like a wave (…) You see it in the United States and Europe. And we see that as soon as they start to get a little tired, it becomes like a show to them: ‘I can’t watch this rerun for the 10th time,” Zelenskyy added.
Speaking alongside von der Leyen on Saturday, Zelenskyy said that “it is clear the war in the Middle East takes over the focus of international attention” but that he was confident support for Ukraine would continue.
Zelenskyy also denied media reports that US and EU officials were asking Kyiv to consider peace negotiations with Russia.
US and European officials have spoken to the Ukrainian government about what possible peace negotiations with Russia might entail to end the war, NBC quoted two anonymous US officials as saying.
“Nobody is putting pressure on me today. No leader of the US or EU puts pressure on us to sit down at the negotiation table,” Zelenskyy said, stressing that such a decision would lie only with him and the Ukrainian people.
Western leaders have so far continued to reaffirm their support for Ukraine, but to some observers, the pledges might start to ring hollow with comments that run contrary to the public lines taken.
A pair of notorious Russian pranksters tricked Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni into a phone call in mid-September where she said Western allies are tired of the war.
“I see that there is a lot of fatigue, I have to say the truth, from all the sides,” Meloni said in an audio recording of the call, released online this week.
“We’re nearing the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out,” she added.
“People are tired. This is fatigue. This is normal,” Zelenskyy said in Kyiv on Saturday.
“There are difficulties, yes. There are different opinions [on the conflict]. This is true. But I believe that we don’t have any right even to think about a defeat. There is no alternative,” Zelenskyy said.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]
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