Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Chancellor Olaf Scholz for Germany's 'powerful support'

Aachen (Germany) (AFP) - Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday called Germany a “true friend” in his country’s battle against Russia, as Berlin pledged unwavering support for Kyiv ahead of a widely expected counter-offensive.

Berlin unveiled a new military package for Kyiv worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion), its biggest yet for Ukraine, as Zelensky made his first visit to Germany since Russia’s invasion.

The Ukrainian president had travelled to Berlin for talks with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier after meeting Italian leaders and Pope Francis in Rome.

His next destination later Sunday will be another European heavyweight France, where meetings are expected with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, sources told AFP.

Zelensky’s weekend diplomatic tour comes ahead of an EU summit in Reykjavik and a gathering of G7 leaders in Japan.

In Berlin, he thanked Chancellor Olaf Scholz for Germany’s “powerful support” in the form of the armaments package, saying “everything in this security package will significantly strengthen our defence”.

“Now is the time for us to determine the end of this war this year. This year, we can make the aggressor’s defeat irreversible,” he said.

Along with Scholz, Zelensky then travelled to the western city of Aachen, where he was due to pick up the Charlemagne award for efforts to foster European unity at a ceremony also attended by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Anticipating Zelensky’s arrival, several hundred Ukraine supporters holding blue balloons and wearing yellow-and-blue flags around their shoulders held a rally in Aachen.

Olga Zelenska, 37, told AFP she came to show her support for her country. “We are proud,” she said, when asked about the Charlemagne award for her people.

- ‘As long as necessary’ -

Ukrainian forces have been training troops and stockpiling Western-supplied munitions and hardware that analysts say will be key to reclaiming territory captured by Russia.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky signs the guestbook at the Bellevue Palace before heading into talks with Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Once accused of reticence in supplying military gear to Ukraine, Germany has since become the second-biggest contributor of tanks, rockets and anti-missile systems to the country, after the United States.

Scholz on Sunday reiterated Berlin’s firm backing, telling Zelensky directly: “We will support you for as long as it is necessary.”

Zelensky said he would urge Scholz to support Ukraine’s bid for fighter jet deliveries, though he did not specify if he was seeking aircraft directly from Germany.

Early on in the conflict, Kyiv had accused Germany of being too accommodating to Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Berlin’s reliance on Russian energy had proved tricky.

Kyiv had also snubbed a visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the weeks following the invasion, which in turn delayed Scholz’s first trip to the war-torn country.

Both Steinmeier and Scholz have since visited Ukraine.

In a clear show of its backing for Kyiv, Berlin on Saturday said it would send Ukraine more firing units and launchers for the Iris-T anti-missile system, 30 additional Leopard 1 tanks, more than 100 armoured combat vehicles and over 200 surveillance drones.

Britain this week announced it was sending Storm Shadow missiles, becoming the first country to send longer-range arms to Kyiv

Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, hailed the announcement, saying it indicated that Russia was “bound to lose and sit on the bench of historical shame”.

As Kyiv prepares its offensive to retake ground in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south, Germany’s continued military backing will likely prove vital.

High-tech German-made Leopard 2A6 tanks sought by Kyiv have already been put to use at the frontlines, and the medium-range Iris-T missile defence system from Germany is also helping to bolster Ukraine’s protection against Russian strikes.

- ‘Inaction’ -

On the front line, Russia said Sunday that two of its military commanders had been killed in combat near the flashpoint town of Bakhmut.

In a rare announcement of losses on the battlefield, the Russian defence ministry said in a statement that the commander of the 4th motorised rifle brigade, Vyacheslav Makarov, and Yevgeny Brovko, deputy commander of the Army Corps for military-political work, had been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The head of Russia’s private Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin again accused the Russian army of inaction around Bakhmut.

In a post published by his press service, Prigozhin slammed the “airborne forces” of not backing his men as claimed by the defence ministry.

“I didn’t see them… I don’t know where they are and who they are helping,” he charged.

Elsewhere, Moscow said Russian forces had struck Western arm depots and Ukrainian troops in the western city of Ternopil and the eastern town of Petropavlivka.