Before the ceremony and the serious meetings about war, the European leaders witnessed the devastation wrought by Russia. A must. To understand Ukraine’s fight for survival, they had to see it themselves, with their own eyes.
The blown-up buildings. The smashed cars. And a message of hope spray-painted on a damaged building despite mounting Ukrainian deaths.
French President Emmanuel Macron spotted it immediately amid the ruins Thursday.
“Look at that, ‘Make Europe, not war,’ ” Macron said, pointing and reading the words out loud in English. “It’s very moving to see that.”
The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania had a walking tour of Irpin, a small city that bore the full brunt of Russia’s failed assault on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in the first weeks of the war. The tour preceded a meeting in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who met them wearing army green pants, a matching T-shirt and sneakers.
If the four hadn’t fully grasped the scale of the horrors inflicted by the Russian invasion, ravages like the ones visited across much of Europe during World War I and World War II, then Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Premier Mario Draghi and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis have no excuses now.
The leaders traveled by overnight train to the Ukrainian capital because flights aren’t possible in the wartime airspace where missiles, drones, fighter jets and helicopters have rained down death and destruction. Iohannis, whose country has been a key destination for Ukrainian refugees, traveled separately from the others.
Standing out in their suits and ties amid the heavily armed soldiers guarding them, they heard from a Ukrainian government minister how Russian soldiers fired indiscriminately at families in cars and how the blowing up of bridges had blocked escape routes, locking people in a furnace of death and fighting.
“How many cities do you have in such a situation?” Macron asked.
“Hundreds,” Oleksiy Chernyshov, Ukraine’s minister for communities and territories development, replied.
“They were shooting into the families, children, women” as they tried to flee the fighting, the minister said. “They were just deliberately killing people inside the cars.”
Macron wanted to understand how troops could do such things.
“How do you explain this?” he asked.
Chernyshov explained that some of the killers appeared to have been ordinary young soldiers and others appeared to have been special forces from the Caucasus region, which lies between the Black and Caspian seas. Moscow has deployed fighters from Chechnya, known for their ferocity, to Ukraine.
“We have hundreds of these cases, I am sorry to say. They are still going on,” he said.
The devastated buildings with their innards blown out that the chancellor, the premier and the presidents walked past are just a small fraction of the destruction in Ukraine after nearly four months of fighting.
The official said more than 12,000 apartment buildings have been destroyed so far. Add to that electricity substations, heating plants, roads, bridges, schools, churches.
“You name it,” the minister said. “A lot of things to be rebuilt.”
The leaders wanted to know more.
How was the Russian advance going now? Scholz asked.
Macron wanted to know whether additional forces were being massed in Belarus, posing another possible threat to Ukraine.
“We think yes,” Chernyshov said.
Macron was clearly moved. He called Irpin, which Ukrainian forces retook as Russian troops retreated from around Kyiv, “a heroic town.”
“This is where the Ukrainians stopped the Russian army,” he said.
The French leader said Irpin bore “the traces of barbary.”
“Massacres were carried out.” he said. “We have the first traces of what are war crimes.”
So now they know: With their own eyes.