By Vanessa Gera and Karel Janicek
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia safely returned to Central Europe on Wednesday after visiting Kyiv to show support for Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia’s invasion.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala called on as many countries as possible to equip Ukraine with large amounts of weapons quickly, so the country can continue fighting off Russian forces trying to take the capital and other cities.
“We have to realize that [the Ukrainians] also fight for our independence, for our freedom and we have to support them,” Fiala said after arriving back in Prague. “That’s the reason why we traveled there, to show them they’re not alone.”
He and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland and Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian leaders during their trip to Kyiv on Tuesday, when sustained Russian shelling targeted the city and its suburbs.
They went ahead with the train journey of many hours each way despite concerns about the risks of going to a city under attack, hoping to inspire more courageous international backing of Ukraine. Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski — the chief of the ruling conservative party and his country’s most powerful politician — also made the trip.
While in Kyiv, Kaczynski said he thinks a NATO peacekeeping mission is needed in Ukraine, or “possibly some wider international structure, but a mission that will also be able to defend itself and that will operate in Ukraine.”
The Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia are members of both the European Union and NATO. Although pronouncing their trip to be an EU mission, officials in Brussels cast it as something the three leaders undertook on their own.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said it was good for Western allies to engage closely with Zelenskyy, but he didn’t clearly endorse the visit to Kyiv.
At home, the prime ministers won widespread praise for traveling into a country at war, and some predicted the trip would be remembered as historic. A few, however, criticized the leaders for making a risky trip that was largely symbolic and lacked a clear international mandate.
For his part, Zelenskyy voiced his appreciation for the show of support from members of the EU, which he hopes Ukraine will one day be able to join.
The leaders crossed safely by train back into Poland on Wednesday morning. They then had a phone conversation with European Council President Charles Michel. Fiala tweeted a photo of the three prime ministers sitting around a phone as they briefed Michel.
In Brussels, a spokesperson for the EU’s executive arm said “solidarity is expressed in different ways through different channels.”
“Our solidarity with Ukraine is absolute. It has been repeated on numerous occasions. But more importantly, it is extremely tangible,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said, citing the 27-nation bloc’s financing for refugees and military equipment. “And I can assure you that this solidarity is very well understood by the Ukrainian authorities.”
Fiala, the Czech leader, acknowledged that NATO was not ready to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, something Ukraine has requested. But he said Ukrainians would be able to enforce the no-fly zone by themselves if they have enough weapons and anti-aircraft missiles.
Non-NATO member Sweden indicated Wednesday it might be ready to send more weapons.
“I do not rule out further weapons support from Sweden,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. “We are also clear from the Swedish side that we want to do this bilaterally.”
The attack on Ukraine prompted Sweden to break with its policy of not providing arms to countries at war by sending assault rifles and anti-tank weapons to Kyiv in late February. It is the first time the country has offered military aid since 1939, when it assisted Finland against the invading Soviet Union.
In Slovenia, where Jansa’s right-wing SDS party faces a parliamentary election on April 24 amid decreasing popularity, some characterized the Kyiv trip as a public relations stunt.
The Ukrainian crisis “comes in handy for Jansa to improve his image in front of his voters and divert attention from domestic political debates,” the independent Vecer newspaper said in a commentary published Wednesday.