Days after Pope Francis confused the Ukrainian government with talk of a secret peace mission, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Rome on Saturday to meet Francis and Italian officials, including Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Zelensky's visit comes at a potentially pivotal time in the war against Russia, as Ukrainian troops advance near the key eastern city of Bakhmut ahead of a widely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Ukrainian leader called his trip to the Italian capital – placed under a no-fly zone and with extraordinary safety measures on the streets – “important visit” to “close to victory” for his country. The Vatican confirmed that Zelensky will meet with Francis on Saturday. Mr Zelensky is also scheduled to meet with the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, and with Ms Meloni, who despite softening support for Ukraine in Italian public opinion and within his own coalition government remains a staunch defender of Kyiv.
Mr Zelensky's visit “recognized the importance of Italy as a key ally” of Ukraine, said Antonio Tajani, Italy's foreign minister. He added that Italy would continue to offer “total support” to Ukraine in the war and said that while peace was desired, “Peace means peace with justice, complete independence of Ukraine.”
In his meeting with the government, Zelensky is expected to renew calls for Italian military support, especially anti-aircraft weapons, as Italian analysts say continued Western aid will demonstrate to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin that Ukraine's allies remain united.
But Francis, who loathes the arms trade, has shown deep anxiety about the pain the 15-month conflict has caused.
“The war in Ukraine,” Francis said Saturday morning at the Vatican, “has brought unspeakable suffering and death.”
Mr Zelensky and Francis met in Rome for an official visit in 2020 before the war, but since the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, the pope has declined multiple invitations from the Ukrainian government to meet Mr Zelensky in Kyiv.
Francis has stated that, in hopes of eventually playing a peacemaker role, he would like any visit to Ukraine to coincide with a visit to Moscow, but Putin has repeatedly made it clear he wants no such visit.
In recent weeks, the pope has been trying to propel himself into discussions about the potential for peace in Ukraine. On the flight back from Hungary last month, Francis spoke vaguely of “a mission underway now, but not yet publicized” to bring peace, adding “when it is published, I will talk about it.”
The Kremlin responded by saying it had no idea what the pope was talking about. And Ukraine's ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, said, “Ukraine doesn't know that.”
Zelensky did not leave Ukraine for the first 10 months of the war and his first trips abroad – including to England, France and the United States – were rare. However, in recent weeks, he has visited The Hague and Finland, and is expected to make his next trip to Germany.
Russia continued to attack Ukrainian cities far from the front lines overnight. Mayor of Khmelnytsky in western Ukraine, Oleksandr Symchyshyn, he said on national television on Saturday that 11 people were injured in the attack which hit critical infrastructure and caused a large fire.
Ukrainian Air Force said in a statement that 21 Russian drones were launched on targets across the country overnight and 17 were shot down.
Victoria Kim reporting contribution from Seoul, and Shashank Bengali from Istanbul.