Zelensky to meet Pope as Germany unveils more arms for Ukraine

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Rome Saturday for meetings with Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, as Germany unveiled a new weapons package ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.

“An important visit for approaching victory of Ukraine!” Zelensky tweeted shortly after arriving in Rome, on his first visit to EU and NATO member Italy since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

There was a heavy security presence for his visit, which began with formal welcome by President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinale Palace, as about 100 people holding Ukrainian flags gathered nearby.

Despite a history of warm ties with Moscow, including within Meloni’s hard-right coalition government, Italy has been a strong supporter of Kyiv, sending weapons and aid and backing sanctions against Russia.

Pope Francis, who last hosted Zelensky at the Vatican in February 2020, has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine and prays for the victims of the war almost every week.

There is widespread speculation that Zelensky’s trip to Rome could be followed by a visit to Berlin, which on Saturday announced a huge new weapons package for Ukraine.

Germany’s defence ministry said it was preparing a package worth 2.7 billion euros ($2.95 billion), reportedly Berlin’s largest since Russia invaded its neighbour.

“We all hope for a rapid end to this terrible war by Russia against the Ukrainian people, but unfortunately this is not in sight,” Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said in a statement.

“This is why Germany will supply all the help that it can, for as long as necessary,” he said.

– ‘Bound to lose’ –

Kyiv was quick to welcome Germany’s weapons package, which will include 30 additional Leopard-1 tanks, Marder armoured vehicles, air-defence systems and surveillance drones.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenksy, said it indicated that Russia was “bound to lose and sit on the bench of historical shame.”

Western allies have delivered increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine, though not the advanced fighter jets that Zelensky has requested.

The UK government this week announced it would send Storm Shadow missiles, becoming the first country to provide longer-range weapons to Kyiv, in what Russia called “an extremely hostile step”.

A senior Ukrainian military commander said Saturday that Kyiv’s forces were advancing along parts of the front line against Russian forces near the eastern flashpoint town of Bakhmut.

“Our soldiers are moving forward in some areas of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” commander of the Ukrainian ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi said on social media.

Kyiv said on Friday it had retaken swathes of ground near Bakhmut, although Russia insisted it had repelled an attack along a broad stretch of the front line.

The conflicting reports suggest an increase in fighting in Ukraine after months of relative stability, as expectations grow over Kyiv’s spring counteroffensive.

The question of when and where Ukraine might launch its high stakes battle to push Russian forces from occupied land has been the subject of steady speculation, although Zelensky insisted earlier this week that his army needed more time to prepare. 

– Suffering and death –

Meloni, who took office last October after her far-right Brothers of Italy party won September elections, visited Kyiv in February to emphasise her country’s support and met with Zelensky.

She also hosted Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Rome last month, on the occasion of a conference on how Italian businesses could help rebuild the war-torn country.

During an address to various ambassadors to the Holy See earlier Saturday, Pope Francis again lamented the conflict in Ukraine that he said “has brought suffering and unspeakable deaths”. 

During a papal audience in Rome last month, Shmyhal invited the 86-year-old pontiff to Ukraine and asked for his help in returning children forcibly taken to Russia.

Speaking to reporters a few days later while flying home from a trip to Hungary, Francis confirmed he wanted to help, saying that “a mission is underway” without providing more details. 

Both Kyiv and Moscow said they knew nothing about such a mission.


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