Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy embarked on a diplomatic offensive this weekend to secure support ahead of his military’s long-awaited assault against Russian forces on the battlefield.
He was in London on Monday after a tour of European capitals that saw him meet with allied leaders and even Pope Francis at a decisive moment in the conflict.
Zelenskyy secured new military aid from France and Germany as his troops appeared to deal the Kremlin new blows on the ground and in the air, with Moscow's army suffering further losses around the eastern city of Bakhmut and its air force losing as many as four aircraft.
It comes as China’s special envoy to Europe is expected to visit Ukraine, Russia and a number of European countries this week, as Beijing seeks to play the role of a neutral negotiator in the conflict with a push for peace that appears some way off.
China has not openly condemned the invasion, with the United States and its allies wary of its close ties with Russia.
Before sitting down with Li Hui in Kyiv, Zelenskyy embarked on a whirlwind tour of European allies to bolster his military as it readies a counteroffensive to recapture occupied territory.
He traveled to London on Monday for talks with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Sunak's office said a new bevy of equipment for Ukraine would include hundreds of long-range attack drones with a range of more than 124 miles, after Britain sent long-range precision missiles last week that have already expanded Kyiv’s ability to strike targets in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.
It comes after Zelenskyy’s back-to-back visits to Berlin, Rome and Paris over the weekend that included a meeting with Francis.
In Berlin, Zelenskyy thanked German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for the country’s military support, a far cry from Berlin’s hesitancy earlier in the war. The Ukrainian leader left with a promise of additional military aid worth more than $3 billion.
After a three-hour meeting in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to help Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” pledging additional military aid, including armored vehicles and light tanks “in the coming weeks,” as well as training for soldiers and supporting Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.
Zelenskyy said Saturday that Kyiv and its Western supporters could make a Russian defeat in the war “irreversible” this year. And while that would require a sweeping success in the battles to come, he will have had the wind in his sails thanks to a renewed sense that Kyiv was beating back Russian forces after a difficult winter on the defensive.
On Saturday, Russia media reported that up to four Russian aircraft, including two fighter jets and two helicopters, may have been shot down in the country’s Bryansk region near the border with Ukraine. NBC News could not verify the reports.
Kyiv did not take responsibility for the incident, but Ukraine’s presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, called it “justice” and “instant karma” in a tweet.
The incident could further fuel a sense of unease inside Russia, after a wave of explosions that hit strategic targets and several prominent pro-war figures in recent months and an alleged drone attack on the Kremlin, all blamed on Ukraine.
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin suggested Sunday the aircraft could have been shot down by Russia’s own air defense systems, without providing evidence.
Prigozhin’s fighters have been fighting for the city of Bakhmut, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance and the focal point of the conflict in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
His bitter feud with Russia’s top military brass over ammunition has escalated in full public view, with Prigozhin blaming army troops for setbacks in fighting around the city last week that saw Ukraine claim its first significant gains in months.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Sunday that Ukrainian forces had made “massive attempts to break through the defenses of our troops,” to the north and south of Bakhmut, but said none of them were successful. It also said that two of its commanders had died repelling Ukrainian attacks in a village near Bakhmut.
Meanwhile, Kyiv praised its defenders but remained cautious.
“The advance of our troops in the Bakhmut direction is the first success of offensive actions during the operation for the defense of Bakhmut,” Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said in a statement on Telegram on Monday. “However, this is only a partial success,” he noted.
Whether that partial success represents the start of something bigger or an isolated counterattack remains to be seen.
“It seems likely that we are in the preliminary, or ‘shaping,’ stages of Ukraine’s long-awaited ‘spring’ offensive. In that sense, Ukraine has indeed begun its attack: but what we are seeing are the initial stages designed to create uncertainty,” said Christopher Tuck, an expert in conflict and security at King’s College London.
“Russian forces have created extensive fixed defenses all along the front line, but they cannot man all of those defenses adequately because the front is so long,” he said.
“Therefore, a key part of Ukraine’s battle plan will be to try and deceive Russian forces as to the likely point of attack,” he added. “Whilst it is not impossible that Donbas might be that intended point of attack, it is equally likely that Ukrainian operations around Bakhmut are intended to focus Russian efforts there in preparation for a Ukrainian offensive elsewhere.”