Zelenskyy meets Pope as Italian leaders assure Ukraine backing

Barred from speaking to the Eurovision audience, Ukraine's President instead spent the day in Rome, where he met the Pope - Callum Watkinson reports

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with the Pope in private as Italy’s prime minister assured military support will continue for his country against Russia.

Pope Francis recently said the Vatican has launched a behind-the-scenes initiative to try to end the war launched last year by Russia.

Mr Zelenskyy said that he asked the pope to condemn Russian "crimes in Ukraine" because "there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor."

"I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace," Mr Zelenskyy said.

Later, in an interview on Italian state TV, the Ukrainian leader said the pope ”knows my position, the war is in Ukraine, that is why it has to be Ukraine's plan" to bring peace.

Shortly after arriving in Rome on Saturday, Mr Zelenskyy described meetings with Francis, President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni as an “important visit for approaching victory of Ukraine.”

"The message is clear and simple,” Premier Giorgia Meloni said after meeting with Mr Zelenskyy for more than an hour.

"The future of Ukraine is a future of peace and freedom. And it's the future of Europe, a future of peace and freedom, for which there are no other possible solutions."

Mr Mattarella told Mr Zelenskyy “we are fully at your side” as he welcomed him at the presidential Quirinale Palace.

Since the war began, Italy has furnished about 1 billion euros (£880 million) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.

Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, right, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy shake hands before their meeting on Saturday. Credit: AP

Mr Zelenskyy is believed to be heading to Berlin next, though his exact schedule hasn't been publicly announced because of security concerns, and the Vatican only confirmed a meeting shortly before he arrived.

Francis, who is eager for peace, last met with the Ukrainian leader in 2020. The pontiff makes frequent impassioned pleas on behalf of Ukraine's “martyred" people, in his words.

At the end of April, flying back to Rome from a trip to Hungary, Francis told reporters on the plane that the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scene peace mission but gave no details.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine has confirmed such an initiative.

He has said he would like to go to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, if such a visit could be coupled with one to Moscow, in hopes a papal pilgrimage could further the cause of peace.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk with journalists during a press conference. Credit: AP

Last month, Ukraine's prime minister met with Francis at the Vatican and said he asked the pontiff to help Ukraine get back children illegally taken to Russia during the invasion.

The German government, meanwhile, said it was providing Ukraine with additional military aid worth more than 2.7 billion euros (£2.3 billion), including tanks, anti-aircraft systems and ammunition.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have regained at least a kilometre of territory in the besieged city of Bakhmut - a success that shows Russia has a “severe shortage of credible combat units”, the latest UK intelligence briefing has said.

The MoD said that over the past four days, parts of Russia’s 72nd separate motor rifle brigade (72 SMRB) likely withdrew “in bad order” from their positions on the southern flank of the Bakhmut operation.

Bakhmut has been the focus of intense fighting for months - Ukraine losing it would represent Moscow's first major victory in half a year.

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