Leaders of 3 EU states head to Kyiv as attacks intensify

By Vanessa Gera And Raf Casert

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The prime ministers of Poland, Czech Republic and Slovenia were traveling by train on Tuesday to Kyiv in a show of support for Ukraine as bombardment by the Russian military came closer to the center of the capital.

The three leaders went ahead with the trip despite worries within the European Union about the security risks of traveling within a war zone. No further details about the itinerary were disclosed except that they will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic and Janez Jansa of Slovenia said they were on an EU mission. But officials from the 27-nation bloc insisted that the trio had undertaken the trip independently.

The three Central European nations are former communist countries that now belong to the EU and NATO. Underlining the deteriorating security situation in Kyiv, a series of strikes hit a residential neighborhood in the city again on Tuesday.

Jansa described the visit as a way to send a message that Ukraine is a European country that deserves to be accepted one day into the EU. In fact, the trip by the three prime ministers comes two weeks to the day after Zelenskyy made an emotional appeal to the European Parliament.

“We are fighting also to be equal members of Europe,” Zelenskyy told EU lawmakers on March 1. “I believe that today we are showing everybody that is what we are.”

Jansa said the war has woken Europeans up to idea that the bloc represents fundamental ideas that are under threat — and which Ukrainians are defending with their lives.

“Thank you for not only defending your homeland and Europe as a territory, but for defending the very core of European values and our way of life. Your fight is our fight and together we will prevail,” he tweeted.

Jansa is a right-wing populist friendly with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The Slovenian prime minister has supported the false claims of former U.S. President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was rigged.

Jansa, 63, served as defense minister during the small state’s brief and successful uprising against the Yugoslav army when Slovenia declared independence in 1991. Lately, he has been comparing Ukraine’s resistance to Russia to Slovenia’s uprising against a much stronger enemy.

Also traveling with the three leaders was Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a deputy prime minister who is Poland’s de-facto leader and whose presence carries a certain symbolic significance.

He is the surviving twin of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash on Russian soil in 2010 along with 95 other Poles, among them political and military leaders, as they traveled to commemorate Poles executed by the Soviet secret police during World War II.

A Polish investigation determined that the crash was an accident caused by fog and pilot error, but Kaczynski, 72, has long suspected that Russian President Vladimir Putin had a role in provoking the accident, a suspicion that has not been proven.

“The aim of the visit is to express the European Union’s unequivocal support for Ukraine and its freedom and independence,” said Fiala, a conservative whose win in a parliamentary election last fall unseated populist billionaire Andrej Babis.

Morawiecki said on Facebook that the visit was agreed by the EU and that the United Nations was also informed.

“In such critical times for the world it is our duty to be where history is forged,” Morawiecki said. “Because it’s not about us, but about the future of our children who deserve to live in a world free from tyranny.”

In Brussels, officials said they had been informed of the visit but characterized it as one taken independently into a war zone.

An EU official, who spoke off the record because of the sensitivity of the trip, said after a summit last week at Versailles, the European Council was informed of the potential mission, but there were “no conclusions or mandate of the European Council as such” for the initiative.

That official said EU Council President Charles Michel also “pointed at the security risks” of such a trip.

Eric Mamer, spokesman of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, confirmed that both she and Michel were informed of a potential visit on the margins of the Versailles meeting.

“It is up to everyone, each person, to determine which channel would appear to be the most appropriate for communication with Zelenskyy,” said Mamer.

The Twitter feeds of Michel and von der Leyen, often a conduit to show support for any initiative backing Ukraine, remained mum on the visit of the central European leaders.

The visit had been planned for several days but was kept secret for security reasons, said Michal Dworczyk, chief of staff for Morawiecki. He said that the leaders had traveled together by train from Poland into Ukraine on Tuesday morning.

A proposal of concrete help for Ukraine would be presented to Ukraine’s leaders, Dworczyk added.

Shortly before dawn and hours before the leaders were due in Kyiv, large explosions thundered across the city from what Ukrainian authorities said were artillery strikes. The shelling ignited a huge fire and a frantic rescue effort in a 15-story apartment building. At least one person was killed and others remain trapped inside.

Shockwaves from an explosion also damaged the entry to a downtown subway station that has been used as a bomb shelter. City authorities tweeted an image of the blown-out facade, saying trains would no longer stop at the station.

Ahead of his departure, Morawiecki on Facebook recalled how the former Polish President Lech Kaczynski had made a visit to the capital of Georgia in 2008 when that ex-Soviet country was under attack from Russia.

He quoted President Kaczynski who said at the time in Tbilisi: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic states, and then maybe it’s time for my country, for Poland.”