The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia have travelled to the embattled Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in an unprecedented show of solidarity. The three leaders went ahead with the hours-long train trip despite worries within the European Union about the security risks of travelling within a war zone. “It is here, in war-torn Kyiv, that history is being made. It is here, that freedom fights against the world of tyranny. It is here that the future of us all hangs in the balance,” Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter.
The long journey over land from Poland to Kyiv by Morawiecki, Poland’s deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Prime Ministers Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic and Janez Jansa of Slovenia sent the message that most of Ukraine still remains in Ukrainian hands. But underlining the deteriorating security situation in Kyiv, a series of strikes hit a residential neighbourhood in the city again on Tuesday. Mr Zelenskyy posted a video on Facebook of him sitting around a table with the leaders briefing them on the war’s developments.
After the meeting, he said he was sure “with such friends” Ukraine would be able to defeat Russia.
“And most importantly, we absolutely trust the leaders of these countries and, therefore, when we speak of security guarantees, of our future in the European Union, or speak of sanctions policy, we know 100% that everything we are discussing will really lead to that positive goal for our country, for our security and for our future,” President Zelenskyy said.
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Prime Minister Fiala said the main purpose of the visit was to tell Ukraine it is not alone. “We know you’re fighting for your lives...but we also know you’re fighting for our lives, our freedom,” Prime Minister Fiala said.
“Probably the main goal of our visit, the main message of our mission, is to say that you’re not alone. Our countries stand by you. Europe stands by you.” The Central European leaders said they were on an EU mission. But officials from the 27-nation bloc insisted that the trio had undertaken the trip independently.
All three countries were once part of the communist bloc and now belong to both the EU and NATO. Prime Minister Jansa described the visit as a way to send a message that Ukraine is a European country that deserves to be accepted one day into the EU.
Two weeks earlier, President Zelenskyy made an emotional appeal to the European Parliament on that very subject. “We are fighting also to be equal members of Europe,” he told EU lawmakers on March 1.
“I believe that today we are showing everybody that is what we are.” Prime Minister Jansa said the war has awoken Europeans to idea that the bloc represents fundamental ideas that are under threat - and which Ukrainians are defending with their lives.
“Thank you for not only defending your homeland and Europe as a territory, but for defending the very core of European values and our way of life. Your fight is our fight and together we will prevail,” tweeted Prime Minister Jansa, a right-wing populist friendly with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Prime Minister Jansa, 63, served as defence minister during the small state’s brief and successful uprising against the Yugoslav army when Slovenia declared independence in 1991.
Lately, he has been comparing Ukraine’s resistance to Slovenia’s uprising against a much stronger enemy.
The presence in Kyiv of Prime Minister Kaczynski, Poland’s de-facto leader, carried a symbolic significance. He is the twin of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash on Russian soil in 2010 along with 95 other Poles, among them political and military leaders, as they travelled to commemorate Poles executed by the Soviet secret police during World War II.
A Polish investigation determined that the crash was an accident caused by fog and pilot error. Still, Prime Minister Kaczynski, 72, has long suspected that Russian President Vladimir Putin had a role in provoking the accident, a suspicion that has not been proven. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who was asked about the visit, didn’t endorse it outright but said: “I think it is important that leaders of NATO countries, of European member states, are engaging closely with President Zelenskyy.”
The visit had been planned for several days but was kept secret for security reasons, said Michal Dworczyk, chief of staff for Prime Minister Morawiecki. Shortly before dawn and hours before the leaders were due in Kyiv, large explosions thundered across the city from what Ukrainian authorities said were Russian artillery strikes. The shelling ignited a huge fire and a frantic rescue effort in a 15-story apartment building. At least one person was killed and others remain trapped inside. Shock waves from an explosion also damaged a downtown subway station in Kyiv that has been used as a bomb shelter.