Lorenzo Tondo and Luke Harding in Kyiv
Sat, 13 May 2023 at 6:19 pm BST
Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked Pope Francis on Saturday to back Kyiv’s peace plan, and the pope indicated the Vatican would help in the repatriation of Ukrainian children taken by Russians.
The Ukrainian president was in Rome for a one-day whistle-stop visit, also meeting Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, and the prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.
“It is a great honour,” Zelenskiy told Francis, putting his hand to his heart and bowing his head as he greeted the 86-year-old pope, who stood with a cane.
Images were also published of the pontiff meeting Zelenskiy over a desk in a wood-panelled office within the Vatican.
Zelenskiy, who was visiting Rome for the first time since the war began, spoke with the pope for 40 minutes and presented him with a bulletproof vest that had been used by a Ukrainian soldier and later painted with an image of the Madonna.
A Vatican statement said that in their private talks, Zelenskiy and the pope discussed “humanitarian gestures”, which a Vatican source said was a reference to the Vatican’s willingness to help with the repatriation of Ukrainian children.
Kyiv estimates nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since February 2022, in what it condemns as illegal deportations.
“We must make every effort to return them home,” Zelenskiy said in a tweet afterwards, saying he had discussed it with the pope.
Zelenskiy also said he asked the pope to “join” Kyiv’s 10-point peace plan.
“I asked (the pope) to condemn Russian crimes in Ukraine. Because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor,” Zelenskiy said in his tweet.
Both Mattarella and Meloni reiterated Italy’s full support for Ukraine in terms of military, financial, humanitarian and reconstruction aid in the short and long term.
At a news conference after her meeting with Zelenskiy, Meloni condemned Russia’s “brutal and unjust aggression”, pledged Italy’s support for Ukraine for “as long as is necessary”, and urged Russia to immediately withdraw.
“You can’t achieve peace through a surrender,” she said, echoing a previous comment by Mattarella. “It would be a very grave precedent for all nations of the world.”
She emphasised Italy’s support for Ukraine’s membership of the EU and the “intensification” of a partnership with Nato.
The historic meeting came as Ukraine regained at least a kilometre (more than half a mile) of territory in the eastern city of Bakhmut amid an alleged Russian withdrawal from the area.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence said that over the past four days Russian troops from the 72nd separate motor rifle brigade (72 SMRB) had possibly withdrawn “in bad order” from their positions on the southern flank of the Bakhmut operation. The move, according to the British intelligence, reflected Moscow’s lack of effective combat units.
In its latest intelligence briefing posted on Twitter, the MoD wrote: “72 SMRB is an element of Russia’s 3rd Army Corps, a formation created in autumn 2023 [sic] and dogged with allegations of poor morale and limited combat effectiveness.
“Its deployment to such a demanding and operationally important sector highlights Russia’s severe shortage of credible combat units.”
The statement came a day after Russia’s first admission that Ukraine was successfully recapturing ground around Bakhmut, with Moscow’s defence ministry saying on Friday that some of its troops had fallen back “to more advantageous defensive positions” near a reservoir north-west of the city, which the Kremlin has been trying to take for more than 10 months.
There has been intense speculation that Ukraine is about to launch its much-anticipated counteroffensive, with several Russian military bloggers claiming on Thursday that the counterattack had already started and that Kyiv had already broken through parts of the frontline.
Military analysts have suggested Ukraine’s localised offensive in Bakhmut may indicate it is trying to pin down Russian forces in the city. But Ukrainian officials on Friday played down these reports.
The Centre for Defence Strategies thinktank in Kyiv said recent gains in Bakhmut were not an attempt to encircle Wagner group mercenaries, who occupy most of its central buildings. Instead, Ukraine’s defence forces were seeking to reduce pressure on two key supply roads into the city, which have come under intense Russian artillery fire.
Russia appeared to suffer a further setback on Saturday after images emerged of one of its SU-34 fighter aircraft crashing in Klintsy, in the western Bryansk region, about 30 miles (50km) from the Ukrainian border. Telegram channels showed burning wreckage on the ground inside Russian territory.
There was separate video footage of a Russian Mi8 helicopter circling the same area, catching fire and then crashing. There was speculation that Russian air defenders had accidentally shot down their own aviation objects, possibly mistaking them for long-range missiles supplied by the UK to Kyiv. Russian officials have blamed the mishap on an engine fire.
And then later there were unconfirmed reports that another plane and helicopter had crashed, in what appeared to be a disastrous day for Russian aviation.
Moscow Telegram channels reported that an SU-35 warplane had been shot down too, as well as a second Mi8 helicopter. Another military helicopter crashed on Friday in Crimea. It was unclear whether the two aircraft and two helicopters were downed on Saturday because of friendly fire, or if the Ukrainians targeted them with missiles.
In the early hours of Saturday, Moscow carried out its own bombardment. Ukraine said it had shot down 17 out of 21 enemy drones, in the latest night-time barrage. Five people were wounded in the Khmelnytskyi region, and another three were hurt in the southern city of Mykolaiv where a bomb had landed on a residential building, its mayor, Oleksandr Sienkevych, said.
Zelenskiy will not meet the other two leaders of Italy’s government, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who are both longtime admirers of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Berlusconi, who has previously claimed that Zelenskiy “provoked” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is still in Milan’s San Raffaele hospital where he has been treated for a lung infection linked to chronic leukaemia.
Salvini, the leader of Italy’s rightwing League party, said he would not meet Zelenskiy because “I’m neither prime minister nor foreign minister”.
However, according to media reports, Salvini’s presence was not welcomed. In March 2023, a few weeks after the war, Salvini had been called out for his previous support of Putin during a visit to Przemyśl, the Polish city on the frontline of the Ukrainian refugee crisis.
In a separate development, the German government announced it would provide further military equipment worth €2.7bn (£2.4bn) to Ukraine in what would be the largest sum Berlin has provided since Russia’s invasion.
Reuters, AFP, AP and Ansa contributed to this report