With his soldiers fighting over the trenches and ruined towns of eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared for the first time in person before leaders of the European Union on Thursday and made an impassioned case that his country’s war with Russia was Europe’s battle, too.
Describing Russia as “the most anti-European force of the modern world,” Mr. Zelensky told the European Parliament that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a threat to the European way of life. “We Ukrainians are on the battlefield together with you.”
European lawmakers received Mr. Zelensky’s speech with roaring applause, welcoming the president to Brussels after his trips to London and Paris. The tour was only the president’s second trip outside Ukraine since Russia swept across its borders nearly a year ago, casting Mr. Zelensky, a comedian before he won election in 2019, into the role of a wartime president.
Since then — with increasing Western aid in the form of weapons and cash — Ukraine has beat back Russia from the capital, Kyiv, and has retaken thousands of square miles in the northeast and south.
But the pace of fighting has slowed through the winter and largely concentrated in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has ordered waves of troops in a bloody campaign to wear down Ukrainian troops. And Russia has continued to pound cities and facilities with powerful missiles, damaging critical infrastructure across the country.
Mr. Zelensky’s focus on Thursday, at a meeting with the leaders of all 27 E.U. member states, was not the longer-range missiles and aircraft that he pursued in London and Paris earlier in his trip. Instead, he appealed for financial aid to run and rebuild his country, and political support to give it hope.
The State of the War
- Zelensky’s U.K. Trip: President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine pleaded with Britain to supply his country with fighter jets, making his dramatic appeal during a surprise visit to London.
- A New Offensive: As the war intensifies in Eastern Ukraine, doctors struggle to handle an influx of injuries and soldiers fret over the prospect of new waves of conscripts arriving from Russia.
- A Bloody Price: In its new push in the east, Russia is relying on masses of troops to overrun Ukrainian positions. The strategy has come at a cost of hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers each day.
- Leadership Shake-Up: Mr. Zelensky’s political party will replace Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. The expected move comes amid a widening corruption scandal, although Mr. Reznikov was not implicated in wrongdoing.
He renewed his push for Ukraine’s quick accession to the European Union, though joining the bloc normally takes aspiring members more than a decade of work. Brussels, the Belgian capital, hosts most of the European Union’s key institutions.
The trip marked a significant moment in Mr. Zelensky’s efforts to keep up international support as the war enters its second year. Politicians, officials, staff members and the news media lined the staircases and balconies at the European Parliament, applauding Mr. Zelensky as he walked through the labyrinthine building to address a packed hall.
The Ukrainian leader was visibly moved when the Ukrainian national anthem played in Parliament, holding his hand over his heart. He then pressed his case for E.U. membership, asserting that his nation was fundamentally European — and that Europe’s fate was bound with Ukraine’s.
“This is our Europe,” Mr. Zelensky told the lawmakers. “These are rules. This is our way of life.”
He called the path into the European Union “a way home” for Ukraine.“I’m here in order to defend our people’s way home.”
In his remarks, Mr. Zelensky also claimed that Ukraine had uncovered a Russian plan to “establish their control over” Moldova. He said that Ukrainian intelligence had obtained a Russian document outlining “a detailed Russian plan to undermine the political situation” there, and that he had informed Moldova’s president.
Moldova’s Security and Intelligence Service confirmed that it had received information from Ukraine, and said that “subversive activities, aimed to undermine the Republic of Moldova, destabilize and violate public order, were identified.”
The service declined to provide more detail, citing “ongoing operational activities.”
Mr. Zelensky told lawmakers this activity was “nothing new” for Russia, whose officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
And as he has in many of his past speeches to leaders abroad, Mr. Zelensky called for continuous support for Kyiv.
He thanked Europe for its support of Ukraine, including military aid, sanctions on Russia and its efforts to wean itself off Moscow’s energy supply. But he also called for his allies to do more, including opening talks this year for his country to become the bloc’snewest member.
“The fundamental steps have been taken,” he said. “But the road is long.”
Unlike in some of his other speeches to world leaders, including E.U. meetings, over the past year, Mr. Zelensky’s tone during the in-person appearance was gentler than past video-streamed remarks in which he sometimes called out countries he believed were not doing enough to help Ukraine.
The shift was a sign that his purpose in Brussels was not only to ask for a faster entry into the bloc, but also to show his appreciation for the support he has already received.
In a news conference after his address, he thanked the European people for continuing to back Ukraine despite the costs, including by hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees. The majority of governments are squarely behind Ukraine, but many also worry about continued public support amid a backdrop of recession and historically high inflation.
“I hope that you understand that when you help Ukraine, you’re helping yourselves,” Mr. Zelensky said. “I would like to stress this is in the interest of all of us, not just Ukrainians, but all Europeans, that Russia should not make new missiles, that Russia should not attack our cities.”
But Russia’s economy has so far weathered the sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States, making up for the lost business with Europe by redirecting its oil exports to Asia. And by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of recruits in the fall, the Kremlin has shored up its defenses and gone on the attack again, according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts.
Some of the most intense fighting in recent days has been reported around the eastern city of Kreminna, a small but vital pocket of land in the eastern Donbas region. Serhiy Haidai, the head of the regional military administration, said on Telegram on Thursday that the number of attacks in the area had grown significantly, although he insisted that Ukrainian forces were holding their ground.
“The Russians are trying to develop success in the Kreminna direction, to push through our defenses, but without success,” he said.
The Russian efforts in Kreminna also suggested that Moscow was trying to stretch Ukrainian forces, which have been straining to hold off Russia’s advance on Bakhmut, a city 30 miles to the south. Analysts say that Kreminna may be more strategically important than Bakhmut because it serves as the gateway to three larger cities to the west and southeast.
“The enemy is deploying the maximum number of reserves of manpower, equipment and artillery in an attempt to push through our defense,” Yuriy Fedorenko, a Ukrainian commander, said on television this week. But he said that Ukrainian forces were meeting the Russian artillery with counter-battery fire.
To continue holding off the Russian offensive — and to execute their own counterattack in the weeks or months ahead — Mr. Zelensky and Ukrainian military commanders say they desperately need more from their Western backers. Their wish list includes longer-range artillery to attack Russian supply lines, fighter jets to secure the country’s skies and more battle tanks to counter the Kremlin’s regained manpower.
Visiting Paris on Wednesday evening, Mr. Zelensky told President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany that the sooner Ukraine received more powerful weapons, “the sooner this Russian aggression will end and we can return to peace in Europe.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels, and Marc Santora from Kyiv, Ukraine. Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels, and Neil MacFarquhar from New York.