The leaders of Germany, France and Italy are expected to pay their first visit to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Thursday, in what is intended as a show of solidarity as his beleaguered country struggles to hold the line against Russian forces.
But they will arrive as complaints grow more desperate in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, about slow arms deliveries, and as grumblings rise in Europe’s corridors of power about how much longer the war might last, with its deepening economic toll taxing their nations and starting to divide European voters.
Along with their American allies, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy have been adamant in their support for Ukraine, saying that when and how to negotiate an end to the war with Russia is up to the Ukrainians themselves.
Mr. Zelensky, however, has criticized them for not doing enough to back Ukraine against a better-armed Russia. Mr. Draghi, a well-respected technocrat with strong relationships across the bloc, has used his considerable gravitas to mend relations with Mr. Zelensky, but the other two leaders will arrive on frosty terms with their Ukrainian counterpart.
Chancellor Scholz of Germany has become Kyiv’s chief target of criticism. Under pressure to visit for months – a pilgrimage made by a long series of European leaders – they have long insisted that they didn’t want to make the trip just for “a photo op.” He would come with something “concrete,” he vowed last month.
On the eve of Thursday’s visit, it was unclear what they might bring.
Although Germany has promised a number of heavy arms in the coming months, no new weapons deliveries would be announced on Thursday, said two German officials who like their counterparts and diplomats around the continent spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. An expected signal of support for Ukraine’s candidacy for European Union membership might turn out to be more symbolic than concrete.
Mr. Macron, too, has been at loggerheads with Mr. Zelensky over the French president’s repeated comments that Russia must not be humiliated, in order to preserve a diplomatic “exit ramp” to the war. On Wednesday, speaking from Romania, Mr. Macron said that France and Europe would continue to help Ukraine with financial, military and humanitarian aid, but also wanted peace.
“At some point, when we will have done our maximum to help resist, when, I wish it, Ukraine will have won and the firing will cease, we will have to negotiate,” Mr. Macron said. “The president of Ukraine and its leaders will have to negotiate with Russia, and we Europeans will be around that table.”
Formal peace talks have long stalled between Ukraine and Russia as the war has shifted to a grinding artillery battle in which Russia appears to have an edge. Many in Kyiv have come to regard European talk of peace, however far in the future, as covert pressure to compromise at a cost of territory.
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Whatever Mr. Scholz and Mr. Macron might offer, the government in Kyiv has no shortage of concrete demands, from fast-tracking Ukraine’s EU membership to implementing tougher sanctions on Russia and, crucially, providing faster deliveries of heavy weapons.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, this week listed on Twitter What it would take to push Russian forces back to Ukraine’s prewar borders: Five-hundred tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles, 1,000 drones, 300 rocket launchers and 1,000 howitzers.
The United States and other nations have scrambled to send weapons, but Ukrainian officials, while stressing their gratitude, say it is not nearly enough. Germany, which has already shipped to some 350 million euros worth of smaller weapons and military equipment to Ukraine, has also promised seven howitzers, a few doses of its antiaircraft Gepard tanks, three long-range multiple rocket launchers complete with ammunition, and a tracking radar to help the Ukrainian army locate sources of Russian heavy artillery with the sophisticated IRIS-T air defense system.
So far, none of the heavy weapons have arrived.
The howitzers are due for delivery in the coming weeks, the tanks and rocket launchers by the end of the summer, and the air defense system in October at the earliest, German officials said.
“You can’t fight with promises, they don’t help on the battlefield,” Mr. Podolyak told the newsmagazine Der Spiegel on Wednesday, adding that he hoped the visit in Kyiv would persuade Mr. Scholz to do more.
The speed and scale of weapons donations to Ukraine has also been a persistent source of criticism for Mr. Scholz from inside Germany.
Even Mr. Scholz’s government allies say he is partly to blame for these perceptions, arguing he has repeatedly resisted making heartfelt public appeals and explanations that could clarify the problems of Germany faces, and its reasons for supporting Ukraine.
Mr. Scholz, whose Social Democratic party has a long history of being soft on Russia, has been ambiguous about his desired endgame of the war, saying that Russia must not win and that Ukraine must not lose. He has not said that Ukraine must win.
“They have promised a lot of things but nothing has been sent so far – zero,” said Norbert Röttgen, a conservative lawmaker and member of the foreign affairs committee.
“It is the government’s clear intention not to deliver heavy weapons – there is no other way to explain it,” he added.
Mr. Scholz has insisted the arms will reach Ukraine. “We will deliver all the weapons that we have on the way,” they said on Monday.
The leaders are also likely to have mixed responses to Ukraine’s bid to become an EU member, an aspiration linked to its fight against Russia since 2014.
The European Commission is expected to recommend granting candidate status to Ukraine on Friday, but the decision, which is fundamentally political, will be in the hands of EU leaders meeting in Brussels next week.
Yet even the gesture of giving Ukraine candidacy – rather than any fast-tracked membership, which is off the table – is a complex one. EU officials and diplomats said the European leaders are likely to give Mr. Zelensky a preview of a positive decision, but with caveats.
At home, the leaders face a public resolve to back in Ukraine that is fraying because of the war, with no end in sight, is proving costly to economies far beyond Ukraine and Russia’s borders, affecting harvests, supply chains and the price of gas.
A broad poll in 10 European countries by the European Council on Foreign Affairs, published Wednesday, showed that a majority of Europeans wanted Ukraine to make peace with Russia immediately, even if that meant losing territory. A smaller percentage of people believed that only Russia’s military defeat could bring peace.
In nine of the countries polled, including France, Germany and Italy, a majority said they preferred immediate peace. Only in Poland, Ukraine’s strongest EU ally, did more respondents prioritize Russia’s defeat.
That popular sentiment has been feeding into the fashion of political leaders vis-à-vis Ukraine, with notable exceptions in Poland and the Baltic countries.
Several senior officials and diplomats from the European Union, the North Atlantic Alliance Organization and European countries said that, in meetings on Ukraine, there was a growing sense of irritation over Mr. Zelensky’s rejection of calls to find a diplomatic break to the fighting, as well as his relentless demands for more help.
One top European government official said his government wasn’t prepared to have the battle for the Donbas, the focus of fighting in eastern Ukraine, cost his people jobs.
And a seasoned European diplomat said that the European Union faced a conundrum it had helped create: Leaders had so ardently backed Ukraine and elevated Mr. Zelensky’s personal status in public, securing ample support from voters, that anything short of complete backing for him was likely to garner outrage.
Aurelien Breeden and Erika Solomon contributed reporting.