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Ursula von der Leyen made an unannounced visit to Ukraine on Saturday in a show of support for the country at a time when western diplomatic focus is shifting to the Israel-Hamas conflict and continued EU and US funding for Kyiv is in doubt.
The European commission president’s visit comes at a critical moment as the US Congress bickers over financial aid for Ukraine and the EU argues over a budget top-up that has delayed approval of its own €50bn support package.
Uncertainty over long-term financing designed to keep the country’s government functioning has raised fears of rising fatigue among its two biggest backers as it wages a more than 20-month long battle against Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Von der Leyen’s trip takes place just days before her commission releases a report assessing Ukraine’s progress towards meeting EU membership milestones, which will play a critical role in determining whether the bloc agrees to start formal accession talks with Kyiv next month.
“Of course the enlargement topic will be at the top of the agenda but also our financial and military support,” von der Leyen told reporters. “The most important message is reassuring that we stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
Von der Leyen said her sixth visit to Ukraine since February 2022 would also involve discussions on a new EU sanctions package against Russia — the bloc’s 12th — that is set to include a ban on Russian diamonds and additional measures to prevent circumvention of restrictions.
She will hold meetings with president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other senior Ukrainian officials in Kyiv, with the message that Brussels continues to prioritise the country and supports its western aspirations.
EU officials admit the conflict between Israel and Hamas has shifted global focus away from the war in Ukraine and diverted diplomatic, political and media attention away from Kyiv over the past four weeks, compounding concerns that support is waning.
The US Congress cut Ukraine funding from its September stop-gap budget legislation and some Republicans have challenged a White House proposal to provide some $60bn in additional assistance as part of a wider foreign policy support package.
Senior US officials have warned that existing US aid to the country will last only for a few more weeks, potentially endangering the country’s battlefield prospects.
At the same time a majority of EU member states has rejected a proposal from the commission to top-up the bloc’s joint budget that includes a €50bn financial support package designed to help fund the country for the next four years, with no guarantee that a compromise deal will be reached by the end of the year.
Zelenskyy is set to use the visit to press von der Leyen on the status of Ukraine’s bid for EU membership, which alongside joining Nato is seen as a crucial geopolitical milestone for its long-term security and development.
The commission will release a progress report on Ukraine’s membership ambitions on Wednesday, a document that will probably advise existing member states on whether to approve the opening of formal accession negotiations at a summit of EU leaders next month.