ROME, Italy — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, later saying he sought support for Ukraine's peace plan from the pontiff, who in the past has offered to try to help end the full-scale war launched by Russia a year ago.
Zelenskyy held his hand over his heart and said it was a “great honor" to meet with the pope. Francis, using a cane for his knee problem, came to greet the Ukrainian president before ushering him into a papal studio near the Vatican's audience hall.
In a tweet after the 40-minute audience, Zelenskyy expressed gratitude to Francis for “his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians.” He said he spoke with the pontiff “about the tens of thousands of deported (Ukrainian) children. We must make every effort to return them home.”
Last month, Ukraine's prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, asked the pope to help get children returned from Russia to Ukraine. But the Vatican's statement Saturday made no mention of the request.
Instead, the Vatican said the two men spoke about Ukraine’s “humanitarian and political situation provoked by the ongoing war."
“The pope assured his constant prayer, paid witness to by his many public appeals and by his continued invoking of the Lord for peace, since February of last year,″ the Vatican said, a reference to the Russian invasion that began Feb. 24, 2022.
The meeting came as Russia's defense ministry said Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles delivered to Ukraine by the United Kingdom this week damaged unspecified civilian enterprises in Luhansk province in Ukraine's far east. Luhansk authorities separately said another missile strike hit the regional capital, wounding an elderly woman.
Two Russian Mi-8 helicopters and an Su-34 fighter-bomber crashed Saturday in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine, state news agency Tass and a Telegram channel close to the Russian defense ministry reported; the newspaper Kommersant cited reports of two fighter planes crashing. The causes of the crashes were not immediately disclosed, but concern in Bryansk is growing about cross-border attacks from Ukraine.
Some Ukrainian units continue to push forward near Bakhmut, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces said Saturday, just a day after Ukrainian commanders said their troops recaptured territory at the scene of the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. “Our soldiers are moving forward in some sectors of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” Oleksandr Syrskyi said on Telegram.
Zelenskyy also said that he asked the pope to condemn Russian “crimes in Ukraine” because “there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.”
“I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace,'' Zelenskyy said. Later, in an interview on Italian state TV, the Ukrainian leader said the pope ”knows my position. The war is in Ukraine, that is why it has to be Ukraine's plan" to bring peace.
Zelenskyy’s 10-point plan would establish a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes. It would also create a European-Atlantic security architecture with guarantees for Ukraine, restore Ukraine’s damaged power infrastructure and ensure safety around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia.
Earlier in the day, Zelenskyy received from Italian officials pledges of open-ended military and financial support as well as stronger backing for Ukraine's cherished aim to join the European Union.
“The message is clear and simple,” Premier Giorgia Meloni said after a meeting with Zelenskyy that lasted more than an hour. "The future of Ukraine is a future of peace and freedom. And it's the future of Europe, a future of peace and freedom, for which there are no other possible solutions.''
The premier, who staunchly supports military aid for Ukraine, said Italy would back the country “360 degrees for all the time necessary and beyond.”
Separately, Italian President Sergio Mattarella told Zelenskyy, “We are fully at your side," Mattarella told Zelenskyy as he welcomed him. Later, presidential palace sources said Mattarella assured his guest that Italy would continue to support Ukraine militarily and financially, as well as with reconstruction and humanitarian aid.
Since the war began, Italy has contributed about 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.
Zelenskyy is believed to be heading to Berlin next for what would be his first visit to Germany since the war began. The exact schedule was not publicly announced because of security concerns.
At the end of April, Francis told reporters that the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scene peace mission but gave no details. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has confirmed such an initiative.
He has said he would like to go to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, if such a visit could be coupled with one to Moscow, in hopes a papal pilgrimage could further the cause of peace.
There has been speculation about whether the Vatican could play some mediating role. But in the Italian TV interview on Saturday, Zelenskyy indicated mediation in general would be impossible. "You can't mediate with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,'' he said.
The German government, meanwhile, said it was providing Ukraine with additional military aid worth more than 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion), including tanks, anti-aircraft systems and ammunition.
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Berlin wanted to show with the latest package of arms “that Germany is serious in its support” for Ukraine.
“Germany will provide all the help it can, as long as it takes,” he said.
Officials in the Ternopil region about 350 kilometers (220 miles) west of Kyiv on Saturday night reported a strike on an industrial area. No casualities or other details were immediately stated.
Russian shelling on Saturday killed two civilians, including a 15-year-old girl, and wounded 10 more in Kostyantynivka, a city less than 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Bakhmut, the regional prosecutor’s office said.
Shelling also hit the center of Huliaipole, a town in the southern Zaporizhzhia province, and wounded a civilian, presidential aide Andriy Yermak said. Two others civilians were hurt in the village of Chornobaivka, in the neighboring Kherson region, another official said.
Russian forces on Friday and overnight resumed their shelling of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, killing a civilian, local governor Oleh Syniehubov said. Four civilians were killed over the same period in Donetsk province in the east, said governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.
A “massive” Russian barrage overnight damaged an energy facility in Ukraine’s western Khmelnytskyi region, but didn't affect the power supply, according to the Ukrainian energy ministry,
Frank Jordans in Berlin, Joanna Kozlowska in London, and Nicole Winfield and Gianfranco Stara in Rome contributed to this report.