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Ursula von der Leyen pledged to maintain financial aid to Ukraine and backed its EU membership ambitions in an unannounced visit to Kyiv aimed at showing support to the country at a time that western diplomatic focus is shifting to the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The European commission president’s Saturday visit comes at a time of sharp doubts over continued western funding for Kyiv, as the US Congress bickers over a financial aid package for the country and the EU argues over a budget top-up that has delayed approval of its own €50bn support package.
Uncertainty over long-term financing designed to keep President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government functioning has raised fears of fatigue among its two biggest backers as it wages a more than 20-month long battle against Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Von der Leyen’s trip also takes place just four days before her commission releases a report assessing Ukraine’s progress towards meeting EU membership milestones, which is expected to encourage member states to agree to start formal accession talks with Kyiv next month.
“I must say, you have made excellent progress, it is impressive to see. We will testify to this next week when the commission will present its report,” von der Leyen said alongside Zelenskyy after their meeting. “You have reached many milestones . . . This is the result of hard work.”
“And I know that you are in the process of completing outstanding reforms. If this happens, and I am confident, Ukraine can reach its ambitious goal of moving to the next stage of the accession process,” she told reporters.
Zelenskyy, who has made EU membership one of his administration’s most important post-war geopolitical goals, said that while “it is clear the war in the Middle East takes over the focus of international attention,” he was confident support for Ukraine would continue.
He also denied media reports that US and EU officials were urging his administration to consider peace talks with Russia, stressing that decision lay only with him and the Ukrainian people.
“Nobody is putting pressure on me today,” he said. “No leader of the US or EU puts pressure on us to sit down at the negotiation table.”
Western officials admit the conflict between Israel and Hamas has diverted diplomatic, political and media attention away from Kyiv over the past four weeks, compounding concerns that support is waning as Ukraine struggles to make big gains against Russian occupying forces.
“People are tired. This is fatigue. This is normal,” Zelenskyy said. “There are difficulties, yes. There are different opinions [on the conflict]. This is true.”
The US Congress cut Ukraine funding from its September stop-gap budget legislation and some Republicans have challenged a White House proposal to provide some $60bn in additional assistance as part of a wider foreign policy support package.
Senior US officials have warned that existing US aid to the country will last only for a few more weeks, potentially endangering the country’s battlefield prospects.
At the same time a majority of EU member states has rejected a proposal from the commission to top-up the bloc’s joint budget that includes a €50bn financial support package designed to help fund the country for the next four years, with no guarantee that a compromise deal will be reached by the end of the year.
Von der Leyen, on her sixth visit to Ukraine since February 2022, said she was “working very hard” to get agreement on the funding package, and on a 12th package of sanctions against Russia that would include additional import and export bans and measures to “tighten” a price cap on Russian oil shipments.
She also pledged to publish a proposal to use proceeds from Russian sovereign assets frozen in the EU before “the end of the year”, in a co-ordinated move with other G7 members to unlock more money to help Kyiv.