AACHEN, Germany (AFP) — Ukraine is fighting for Europe’s freedom and values, European Union leaders said Sunday, as they handed this year’s award for service towards European unity to the war-torn country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people.
“Ukraine incarnates everything the European idea is living for: the courage of convictions, the fight for values and freedom, the commitment to peace and unity,” said EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, at the Charlemagne Prize ceremony, in the western German city of Aachen.
“President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are fighting for the values and the obligation that this prize embodies. And in doing so, they are also fighting for our own freedom and our values,” she said, in a message echoed by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
For Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Russia’s war on its neighbor has “cemented one clear realization: Ukraine is part of our European family.”
Zelensky turned up in person to pick up the prize, while on his first trip to Germany since Russia’s invasion.
His German visit came a day after he met Italian leaders and Pope Francis in Rome, and sources told AFP that his next destination later Sunday will be another European heavyweight France, where meetings are expected with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
The weekend diplomatic tour comes ahead of an EU summit in Reykjavik and a gathering of G7 leaders in Japan.
Zelensky won long-standing ovations at the Aachen ceremony, during which EU leaders also vowed to support Ukraine along its road to joining the bloc.
Calling Germany a “true friend and reliable ally” to Ukraine, as it battles to repel Russian invaders, Zelensky earlier Sunday held separate talks with Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Berlin on Saturday unveiled a new military package for Kyiv worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion), its biggest yet for Ukraine, and hailed by Zelensky as a “powerful support.”
“Now is the time for us to determine the end of this war this year. This year, we can make the aggressor’s defeat irreversible,” said the Ukrainian leader.
Anticipating the president’s arrival in Aachen, several hundred Ukraine supporters holding blue balloons and wearing yellow-and-blue flags around their shoulders held a rally.
Olga Zelenska, 37, told AFP she came to show her support for her country. “We are proud,” she said when asked about the Charlemagne Prize for her people.
‘As long as necessary’
Ukrainian forces have been training troops and stockpiling Western-supplied munitions and hardware that analysts say will be key to reclaiming territory captured by Russia.
Once accused of reticence in supplying military gear to Ukraine, Germany has since become the second-biggest contributor of tanks, rockets, and anti-missile systems to the country, after the United States.
Early on in the conflict, Kyiv had accused Germany of being too accommodating to Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Berlin’s reliance on Russian energy had proved tricky.
Kyiv had also snubbed a visit by Steinmeier in the weeks following the invasion, which in turn delayed Scholz’s first trip to the war-torn country.
Both Steinmeier and Scholz have since visited Ukraine.
On the eve of Zelensky’s visit, Berlin said it would send Ukraine more firing units and launchers for the Iris-T anti-missile system, 30 additional Leopard 1 tanks, more than 100 armored combat vehicles, and over 200 surveillance drones.
Scholz on Sunday reiterated Berlin’s firm backing, telling Zelensky directly: “We will support you for as long as it is necessary.”
Zelensky said he would urge Scholz to support Ukraine’s bid for fighter jet deliveries, though he did not specify if he was seeking aircraft directly from Germany.
On the front line, Kyiv said Ukrainian forces have captured more than 10 Russian positions on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Bakhmut.
Separately, Russia admitted that two of its military commanders had been killed in combat near the town where fighting has been raging for days.
In a rare announcement of losses on the battlefield, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the commander of the 4th motorized rifle brigade, Vyacheslav Makarov, and Yevgeny Brovko, deputy commander of the Army Corps for military-political work, had been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The head of Russia’s private Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin again accused the Russian army of inaction around Bakhmut.
In a post published by his press service, Prigozhin slammed the “airborne forces” for not backing his men as claimed by the Defense Ministry.
“I didn’t see them… I don’t know where they are and who they are helping,” he charged.
Elsewhere, Moscow said Russian forces had struck Western arm depots and Ukrainian troops in the western city of Ternopil and the eastern town of Petropavlivka.