Zelenskiy hopes for EU jets, gets standing ovation in Brussels
By Gabriela Baczynska, Kate Abnett and Ingrid Melander
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday that several European Union leaders were ready to provide Kyiv with aircraft to help its battle against Russia's invasion.
Speaking during his first in-person meeting with all the 27 national leaders of a union Ukraine wants to join, Zelenskiy did not say who could provide jets, adding that some deals were still in the works, while others could not be made public.
While he said that "Free Europe cannot be imagined without free Ukraine", and despite all the cheers and standing ovations he received during his Brussels visit, Zelenskiy heard from European Council chief Charles Michel that the road to EU membership would be long and hard.
EU countries have supplied large amounts of arms to Ukraine over the past year and have become increasingly comfortable with sending heavy weaponry such as battle tanks.
But they have yet to commit - publicly at least - to sending fighter jets and longer-range rockets, citing worries about a potential escalation of the conflict onto Russian territory.
"Europe will be with us until our victory. I've heard it from a number of European leaders... about the readiness to give us the necessary weapons and support, including the aircraft," Zelenskiy told a news conference in Brussels.
He did not elaborate, but said more would be decided in bilateral meetings with some of the leaders later in the day.
Zelenskiy told EU leaders that Russia was fighting not only against Ukraine but against a "free and united" Europe. As an example, he said Ukraine had recently uncovered a Russian intelligence plan "for the destruction of Moldova", which he shared with the country's president.
Zelenskiy gave no further details. Moldova's Information and Security Service said it had received information from Ukraine about attempts to destabilize the country, an ex-Soviet republic like Russia and Ukraine, but could not disclose details.
With the EU preparing a 10th package of sanctions against Russia for the Feb. 24 anniversary of the start of the war, Zelenskiy asked the bloc to curb tech exports to Russia in order to curb Moscow's ability to produce missiles for the war.
The EU is also looking for ways to use Russian money already frozen on its soil to finance rebuilding Ukraine from the war, though major legal concerns remain.
"It's only fair that those assets are used for the reconstruction of Ukraine," said Michel.
STANDING OVATIONS, BUT MUCH WORK AHEAD
Ukraine is pushing for EU membership talks to start this year.
Zelenskiy told EU leaders they would go down in history, just as the founding fathers of the bloc did, if they now help bring peace to Ukraine and bring it into the EU.
But while some EU countries are keen to give Ukraine the morale boost that would come with starting accession talks, others are much more cautious. They have stressed that would-be members need to meet a range of criteria - such as cracking down on corruption - before they can even start negotiations.
When Zelenskiy told the news conference that "when I say this year I mean this year, 2023", Michel told him he would first need to have all member states agree to it.
Michel stressed that "the road to peace, reconstruction and membership will be a long, hard road," before adding: "We'll be with you every step of the way."
The European Commission is set to say in October if Ukraine meets the criteria to start accession talks, and then it requires member states to unanimously agree.
Earlier on Thursday, in an address to the European Parliament, Zelenskiy expressed gratitude for the support of both politicians and ordinary citizens in the EU.
He received a long standing ovation from EU lawmakers, cheering and applauding, some of them wearing the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, Marine Strauss, Charlotte van Campenhout, Bart H. Meijer, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Dan Peleschuk, Alexander Tanas and David Ljunggren; writing by Ingrid Melander and Andrew Gray; editing by Jan Strupczewski, Alex Richardson, William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)