KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Top European Union officials arrived in Kyiv on Thursday for talks with the Ukrainian government as rescue crews dug through the rubble of an apartment building in eastern Ukraine that was struck by a Russian missile, killing at least three people and wounding 21 others.
The scene of devastation in the eastern Donetsk provincial city of Kramatorsk, where emergency workers spent the night searching for survivors after the missile hit late Wednesday, served as a grim reminder of the war’s toll almost a year after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
At least one more victim was believed to be under the debris, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
Russia has frequently struck apartment buildings during the war, causing civilian casualties, although the Kremlin has denied targeting residential structures.
Russian shelling across Ukraine over the previous 24 hours killed at least eight civilians and wounded 29 others, the presidential office said. Along with the victims in Kramatorsk, the toll included four who died when a Russian mortar shell hit a basement where they were sheltering in the northeastern Chernihiv region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was due to meet with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell before what officials described as a summit on Friday.
Borrell tweeted that the visit aimed “to convey EU’s strongest message of support to all Ukrainians defending their country.”
EU assistance for Ukraine, he said, has reached 50 billion euros ($55 billion) since the start of Russia’s war on Feb. 24.
“Europe stood united with Ukraine from day one. And will still stand with you to win and rebuild,” Borrell tweeted.
It was Von der Leyen’s fourth visit since the invasion. The last such summit was held in Kyiv in October 2021 — a few months before the war started.
Ukraine’s anti-corruption drive was expected to be on the agenda of the talks. Kyiv’s long path toward potential membership in the 27-nation bloc will be a key issue under discussion, with stamping out corruption a key condition for joining.
Von der Leyen tweeted: “We are here together to show that the EU stands by Ukraine as firmly as ever. And to deepen further our support and cooperation.”
Zelenskyy on Wednesday took aim at corrupt officials for the second time in the space of a week. Several high-ranking officials were dismissed.
Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft.
The latest corruption allegations came as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars to help Kyiv fight Moscow’s forces and as the Ukrainian government is introducing reforms so it can potentially join the EU one day.
Ukraine’s government is keen to get more Western military aid, on top of the tanks pledged last week, as the warring sides are expected to launch new offensives once winter ends. Kyiv is now asking for fighter jets.
Kyiv expects Russia to “attempt something” on the Feb. 24 anniversary, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told France’s BFM television. He stressed his government’s urgency on getting weapons without delay.
“We are telling our partners that we too need to be ready as fast as possible,” he said in an interview late Wednesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden has ruled out providing F-16s to Ukraine. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday during a trip to the Philippines that the focus of American aid is to increase Ukraine’s military capabilities by sending artillery, armor, air defense and providing training to Ukrainian troops.
The U.S. is “focused on providing Ukraine the capability that it needs to be effective in its upcoming anticipated counteroffensive in the spring,” Austin said.
“And so we’re doing everything we can to get them the capabilities that they need right now to be effective on the battlefield,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that strategy would backfire, by prompting Moscow to ensure that potential Russian targets were out of range.
“The longer range the weapons supplied to the Kyiv regime, the farther we would need to push them away from the territories that are part of our country,” Lavrov said in an interview with Russian state media.
He said Moscow would like to see the war end, but noted that the length of the conflict was less important than its outcome: to protect Russian territory and “people who want to remain part of the Russian culture,” reaffirming Moscow’s declared goal to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine.
By SUSIE BLANN Associated Press