Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky received a hero's welcome to Brussels on Thursday as he lobbied star-struck EU leaders for help to repel a renewed Russian offensive.
Two weeks ahead of the first anniversary of Europe's most brutal conflict since the 1940s, President Zelensky has embarked on only his second foreign trip since Moscow launched a full-scale invasion.
After Wednesday's visits to London and Paris to lobby Britain, France and Germany for modern fighter jets and long-range missiles, the former actor turned war leader came to Brussels to address EU leaders and MEPs.
The European Parliament treated President Zelensky to cheers and a standing ovation as he arrived to press Ukraine's case -- as the country that sees itself as fighting to defend Europe's eastern borders -- for a rapid welcome into the EU fold.
"We are defending against the most anti-European force of the modern world -- we are defending ourselves, we Ukrainians on the battlefield, along with you," Volodymyr Zelensky told MEPs.
Parliamentary speaker Roberta Metsola, reflecting the warm response of other senior EU officials, declared: "Ukraine is Europe and your nation's future is in the European Union.
"States must consider, quickly, as a next step, providing long-range systems and the jets you need to protect the liberty too many have taken for granted," she said.
After the parliamentary address, Volodymyr Zelensky was to join the 27 leaders of the EU member states as the special guest at their regular European Council summit.
Arriving at the talks, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said: "It's very important that we speed up military aid to Ukraine. I think all of us looked in the warehouses at what we have. But we should do more."
But the Kremlin reacted with its usual grim warning.
"We see this as a growing engagement of Germany, UK, France in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The boundary between indirect and direct engagement is gradually disappearing. We can only regret it," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
"The actions of these countries lead to an escalation of tensions... make this conflict more painful... and these actions will not change the objectives of our country within the framework of the special military operation."
The NATO and EU powers of Europe have been, along with the United States, the main backers of Ukraine's beleaguered defenders since President Vladimir Putin's Russia unleashed a full-scale invasion on February 24 last year.
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was proud to show President Zelensky the Challenger tanks London is dispatching to Ukraine alongside German-built Leopards from several countries to reinforce Kiev's forces.
The EU leaders will also tout the 67 billion euros ($72 billion) they have spent on military and financial aid to Kyiv, including funds spent on hosting four million Ukrainian refugees.
But Mr Zelensky has more to ask. Ukraine's army is facing a renewed Russian offensive and its commanders want modern western fighter jets and long-range missiles to strike back deep into Russian-held Ukrainian territory.
President Macron and Scholz pledged that Europe would back Ukraine until its eventual victory.
'Wings for freedom'
Arriving at the Brussels summit, Scholz told reporters: "We are gathered here today to give a sign of solidarity and unity.
"We can send out this signal once again and show that we will continue our support for Ukraine in defending its independence and integrity for as long as necessary."
Britain has promised to train Ukrainian pilots and has said it will consider the proposal for combat aircraft in the "long term".
The United States and other NATO allies are nevertheless wary of provoking Russia into an uncontrolled escalation that could draw in western forces.
In frontline eastern Ukraine, the Lugansk regional governor warned that Russia was attacking Ukrainian forces near the town of Kreminna and "systematically destroying" three nearby communities.
"For the offensive, we need more armoured vehicles and ammunition," the statement said.
Moscow says Russian forces were advancing on Bakhmut and Vugledar -- two key centres of fighting in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, now the flashpoint of the war.
Updated maps of Russia have gone on sale in Moscow bookstores that include four annexed Ukrainian regions: Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Lugansk and Donetsk. President Putin regularly refers to them as "our historical lands".
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