By Tom Balmforth and Dan Peleschuk
KYIV -Air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine on Friday as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hosted European Union leaders to discuss further sanctions on Russia and Ukraine’s prospects of joining the European bloc.
The head of the EU’s executive commission and the chairman of the 27 EU national leaders travelled to Kyiv to demonstrate support for Ukraine as the first anniversary of Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of its neighbour approaches.
“There will be no let up in our resolve. We will also support you every step of the way on your journey to the EU,” EU chairman Charles Michel wrote on Twitter on Friday morning under a picture of himself on a central Kyiv square.
There were no immediate reports of fresh missile strikes following the air raid warning, a regular occurance during months of Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure far from the battlefields in the east and south.
Zelenskiy is calling for more punitive measures against Russia by the European Union, though new sanctions the bloc is preparing for the anniversary are set to fall short of his government’s demands.
Kyiv applied to join the bloc days after Russia invaded last year. The EU has embraced the application, although it has rebuffed Ukraine’s calls for a fast track to membership while the country is at war.
“The EU will support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people against Russia’s ongoing war of aggression for as long as it takes,” the EU leaders were expected to say a joint statement, a draft of which was seen by Reuters in advance.
EU officials have listed multiple membership requirements, from political and economic stability to adopting various EU laws. The process is likely to take years.
“Some may want to speculate about the endgame but the simple truth is that we are not there yet,” an EU official said.
With thick snow falling, EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen visited an EU-backed scheme to let Ukrainians trade old light bulbs for energy efficient ones, to reduce demand on a power grid damaged by Russian attacks. Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell toured a demining site.
They also discussed discussed more arms, money and energy support, better access for Ukrainian products in the EU market, tightened sanctions on Moscow and efforts to prosecute Russian war crimes.
The EU will ban Russian refined oil products from Sunday, and EU envoys in Brussels on Friday aimed to agree to cap global prices of Russian fuels, to limit Moscow’s ability to fund the war. A similar price cap on crude oil took effect in December.
The Kremlin said the ban would unbalance global energy markets but Moscow was acting to mitigate its impact. The finance ministry said it would almost treble its daily sales of foreign currency to 8.9 billion roubles ($130 million) a day over the next month to compensate for lower oil and gas revenue.
The German government said it had approved the delivery of Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine from its stocks. The tanks could be delivered sooner than more advanced Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged last week.
The EU has demanded more anti-corruption measures from Ukraine, which is perceived as having endemic state graft. Zelenskiy has announced dismissals and investigations of an array of officials over the past two weeks, pointedly saying that the defence ministry needs to be clean.
Authorities were investigating senior military officials in two cases of suspected corruption, officials said on Thursday. Separately, a criminal group suspected of embezzling state funds by selling overpriced foodstuffs to defence officials had been arrested, the State Bureau of Investigation said.
This week, the authorities raided the homes of one of Ukraine’s most prominent billionaires and a former interior minister, and announced an investigation into what they called a billion dollar fraud at the biggest oil company and refinery.
Russia is intensifying pressure on Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv says Moscow is sending thousands of soldiers and mercenaries to their deaths for small gains.
“They bring in men from their draft and try systematically to find places to break through our defences,” Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces eastern front, told Ukrainian radio NV. “The aim is to fulfil the goal of the leadership to take control of all of Donetsk region. But this plan has been disrupted now for several months running.”
Moscow says a major objective in Ukraine is securing the rest of Donetsk province, one of four it claimed to have unilaterally annexed last year. Its forces have claimed incremental gains over the past week around the city of Bakhumt, its main focus.
A Belarusian volunteer fighting for Ukraine inside the city said there was no sign yet that Ukrainian forces were planning to pull out. “For the moment it’s the opposite, the positions are being reinforced where the Russians are trying to cut us off. But everything hinges on how the situation develops. We’re holding for now.”
Reuters could not independently verify the situation there.
Russian forces made two strikes on the town of Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region, damaging buildings and causing some civilian casualties, the Ukrainian military said late on Thursday.
Russia denies targeting civilians in what Putin calls a “special military operation” to protect Russian security. Ukraine and its allies call the war an unprovoked land grab.