Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touched down in Rome for meetings with Pope Francis and Italian officials on Saturday, in his first visit to the country since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
Announcing his arrival in the Italian capital on Twitter, Zelenskyy said it was “an important visit for the approaching victory of Ukraine!”
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani met the Ukrainian president at a military airfield in Rome’s Ciampino Airport. Italian state radio reported that a no-fly zone had been ordered across Rome’s skies ahead of the meeting, with police sharpshooters stationed on high buildings for Zelenskyy’s security.
Premier Giorgia Meloni and head of state Sergio Mattarella are strong supporters of increased military and financial aid for Ukraine.
Meloni last met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv in February, shortly before the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.
There, she reiterated her support for the country, after former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, blamed Zelenskyy for the war in Ukraine.
Divided opinion within Italy’s ruling right-wing coalition over support for Ukraine has frequently threatened the stability of government.
Both Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who serves as Italy’s deputy prime minister, have voiced strong criticisms of Western sanctions against Russia. Meloni, who leads the far-right Brothers of Italy Party, has previously threatened to trash the coalition that made her prime minister with any party that did not see support for Ukraine as a cornerstone of Italy’s foreign policy.
Zelenskyy’s trip to Rome follows the announcement of a Vatican initiative from Pope Francis on a secret peace “mission” in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Vatican hopes to facilitate the return of Ukrainian children taken to Russia during the war in a program of forced relocation and re-education that the International Criminal Court has previously designated as a war crime.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Francis has regularly referred to Ukraine and its people as “martyred” and has called for the fighting to end, although Ukrainian diplomats have previously complained that he hasn’t come down hard enough on Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an effort to avoid alienating Russia from the Church.
After his meetings in Italy, Zelenskyy is expected to travel to Germany, in another first state visit since the start of the Russian invasion. Zelenskyy’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak announced on Telegram Saturday that Germany will provide a new €2.7 billion ($3 billion) aid package to Ukraine.
Inside Ukraine, Russia appeared to concede that it had lost ground in the key eastern city of Bakhmut, where Russian and Ukrainian troops have been at a stalemate for months.
Though Ukraine’s advance was modest, it raised new doubts about the Kremlin’s hopes of seizing a symbolic victory in the city and fueled broader fears among Russian observers about the military’s positions across the front lines of the war.
For months, Russia has anticipated the coming of a Ukrainian spring counteroffensive that is expected to target occupied land across the country. Moscow’s own winter offensive ended with public infighting as it sustained heavy battlefield losses, with more than 100,000 fighters from Kremlin forces being killed or wounded since December alone, according to U.S. estimates.
Associated Press contributed.