ODESA, Ukraine — It was late in the day, almost four months after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but when the leaders of the European Union’s three largest nations at last journeyed to Kyiv, their intent was clear: to dispel any doubt that they would waver in backing Ukraine’s quest for sovereignty, territorial integrity, freedom and membership in what Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany called “the European family.”
The reassurance, which appeared undiluted by any pressure on Ukraine to negotiate with Moscow, was emphatic. The determination to lay to rest any whiff of appeasement of the indiscriminate aggression by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, which has already taken tens of thousands of lives, appeared paramount.
The insistence last month by President Emmanuel Macron of France that it was important never to cede “to the temptation of humiliation” with respect to Russia had infuriated President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who said the French president should not be seeking “a way out for Russia.” In Kyiv on Thursday, Mr. Macron pivoted, expressing effusive support for the Ukrainian cause.
“We will do everything so that Ukraine can choose its destiny,” he said.
Still, the question remained open of how a war that has put acute pressure on the global economy, with inflation rising sharply and food shortages looming, would ever be ended. The European leaders’ avoidance of any overt exhortation to Mr. Zelensky to negotiate with Mr. Putin almost certainly did not mean that they had given up their strong inclination to favor diplomacy and avert, at any cost, some escalation of the war.
In the immediate term, Europe and its leaders need peace to avoid a downward economic spiral. Soaring energy prices are angering voters. But in the longer term, Europe needs affirmation of the values of freedom and peace that have served it well since 1945 and been cemented by NATO and the European Union.
It was to this vision, and Ukraine’s part in it, that the leaders committed themselves on Thursday.
“Today, it is clearly on Ukrainian soil that the security of the European continent as a whole is at stake,” Mr. Macron said. “Europe is at your side and will remain so as long as necessary.”
This was a different tone from Mr. Macron. Tensions had flared between Mr. Zelensky and his French and German counterparts over issues including delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine and Mr. Macron’s and Mr. Scholz’s readiness to keep diplomatic avenues open to Mr. Putin.
Before the visit Thursday, Oleksiy Arestovych, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, told the mass-circulation German daily Bild that he was worried the European leaders would come to Kyiv saying “we need to end the war that is causing food problems” and “we need to save Putin’s face.”
If there were any such thoughts — and the economic problems caused by the war mount by the day for hard-pressed European leaders — they found no public expression. Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy, who accompanied the German and French leaders, declared: “Today the most important message in this visit is that Italy wants Ukraine in the European Union.”
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
This process will take time, but the expression of support for Ukrainian EU membership, echoed by President Klaus Iohannis of Romania, the fourth member of the delegation, was the most unequivocal yet seen. It suggested that European leaders would formalize Ukraine’s status as an accession candidate to the union.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Ukraine should live!” Mr. Scholz said, using the Ukrainian expression of victory for Ukraine, “Slava Ukraini.” For a leader who has been cautious in expressions of support, it was a passionate declaration.
“Germany cannot, and does not want to be seen as the party that brought NATO to war,” said Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier, explaining Mr. Scholz’s carefully calibrated approach to Kyiv in recent months.
Ukraine’s conviction that its future security and prosperity rest with Europe has for many years been intolerable to Mr. Putin, who believes Ukraine’s fate — if indeed it is to have one as a nation — is for Russia to decide.
The brutality of Russia’s invasion has only redoubled Ukraine’s determination to look West, not East, to secure its development — one of the many ways in which the Russian leader’s reckless gamble has appeared to bolster the very outcomes, like a galvanized NATO alliance, that he had sought to undermine.
“In the last two decades we have moved in opposite directions, Ukraine toward civilization in the West, and Russia toward the past, the Soviet past,” said Petro Obukhov, a member of the City Council of Odesa, who is leading a campaign to remove street names associated with Russia, which founded the city during the reign of Catherine the Great. “We have parted ways.”
Several European leaders, as well as the American secretaries of state and defense, preceded Mr. Macron and Mr. Scholz to Kyiv. The apparent reluctance of the French and German leaders to come had intensified skepticism in the Ukrainian capital about their intentions — especially since the Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 accords, brokered by Paris and Berlin in an attempt to end the Russian-instigated separatist war in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014, had proved so ineffectual.
The last thing Ukraine wants is what is sometimes derisively called a “Minsk 3,” some concocted cease-fire based on mutual concessions that are never implemented and that leave Mr. Putin holding Ukrainian territory with the option of applying further brute force whenever he next chooses.
Russia poured scorn on the visit. Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former president and now the deputy chairman of the Security Council, said “European connoisseurs of frogs, liver and pasta love to visit Kyiv. The benefits are zero.”
This crude invective, from a Russian politician once seen as milder and more pro-European than his master, Mr. Putin, indicated how harsh the confrontation between Russia and the West has become and how elusive peace may prove. Earlier this week, Mr. Medvedev suggested, with smug contempt, that two years from now Ukraine may not exist.
Mr. Macron has made much in recent months of the need to keep talking to Mr. Putin’s Russia, a vast power that, as he sees it, will threaten European stability as long as it is not integrated in some new security architecture. This has caused uneasiness in Ukraine.
Referring to Ukrainian membership of the European Union, Mr. Macron said last month: “We all know perfectly well that the process permitting the admission would take several years, and in fact no doubt several decades.”
Though the process is still expected to take years, the patience talk on Thursday in Kyiv was of accelerating it, not the need for Ukrainian.
The Russian invasion was “premeditated, deliberate, unjustified and unjustifiable,” Mr. Macron said.
He announced that France would deliver six Caesar long-range, self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine, adding to the 12 already delivered. The Caesars are prized for accuracy.
The issue of weapons deliveries to Ukraine has plagued Mr. Scholz, and was at the root of a spat in March that saw the German president, Franz-Walter Steinmeier, disinvited to Ukraine. Tensions have since eased, but Mr. Scholz remains under pressure from some members of his Social Democratic Party to avoid sending too many heavy weapons.
The chancellor appeared visibly moved during a visit to the devastated Kyiv suburb of Irpin. “It’s all the worse when you see how terribly senseless the violence is,” he said of what he called “the Russian war of aggression.”
Whether the experience would change German policy was unclear. But it appears unlikely that the tensions between Germany and Ukraine over the degree of German support will ever be fully dispelled. Germany’s postwar embrace of freedom is equaled only by its horror of war.
Any resolution of the crisis that has left millions of tons of Ukrainian grain rotting in silos on the Black Sea coast also seemed distant. Mr. Macron raised the issue, blaming the “global food crisis” on “Russian aggression.” Russia, of course, blames Ukraine, another illustration of the hardening impasse of the conflict.
Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Erika Sommer from Berlin, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, and Jason Horowitz and Gaia Pianigiani from Rome.