Weeks after Pope Francis bewildered the Ukrainian government with talk of a secret peace mission, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine arrived in Rome on Saturday for meetings with Francis and Italian officials, including Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Mr. Zelensky’s visit comes at a potentially pivotal moment in the war against Russia, as Ukrainian forces make advances near the key eastern city of Bakhmut ahead of a widely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Ukrainian leader called his trip to the Italian capital — which was placed under a no-fly zone — “an important visit” for his country’s “approaching victory.” The Ukrainian flag was raised alongside the Italian flag atop the presidential palace in Rome as Mr. Zelensky met with Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, who told Mr. Zelensky that it was an “honor” to have him in Rome and that “we are fully at your side.”
The Vatican confirmed that Mr. Zelensky would meet with Francis on Saturday, and he was also scheduled to meet with Ms. Meloni, who despite softening support for Ukraine in Italian public opinion and in her own coalition government has remained a staunch defender of Kyiv. On Saturday afternoon, she greeted Mr. Zelensky warmly on a red carpet in the courtyard of Chigi Palace, the seat of Italian government, before the two began talks.
Mr. Zelensky’s visit “recognizes 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 desirable, “Peace means peace with justice, the complete independence of Ukraine.”
In his meetings with the government, Mr. Zelensky is expected to renew calls for Italian military support, especially antiaircraft weapons, as Italian analysts said that continued Western aid would demonstrate to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that Ukraine’s allies remain united.
But Francis, who abhors the arms trade, has shown deep anxiety about the suffering caused by the 15-month conflict.
“The war in Ukraine,” Francis said on 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 Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the pope has declined various invitations from the Ukrainian government to meet Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv.
Francis has stated that, in his hopes of eventually playing the role of peacemaker, he wanted any visit to Ukraine to be in conjunction with a visit to Moscow, but Mr. Putin has repeatedly made it clear that he wanted no such visit.
In recent weeks, the pope has sought to thrust himself into the discussion about a potential peace in Ukraine. On a flight back from Hungary last month, Francis talked cryptically about “a mission going on now, but it is not public yet” to bring peace, adding “when it is public 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 about it.”
Mr. Zelensky did not leave Ukraine for the first 10 months of the war and his initial trips outside the country — including to Britain, France and the United States — were rare. In recent weeks, however, he has visited The Hague and Finland, and is expected to travel next to Germany.
The German government on Saturday announced its largest military aid package for Ukraine since the war began, saying it would provide 2.7 billion euros worth of weapons, including tanks, armored vehicles and substantial air defense systems.
Russia continued to strike Ukrainian cities and towns far from the front line overnight. Serhii Tiurin, a senior official in the Khmelnytskyi region of western Ukraine, said on Saturday that 21 people were injured in a Russian strike, which officials said hit a piece of critical infrastructure and caused a large fire.
Ukraine’s Air Force said in a statement that 21 Russian attack drones were launched at targets across the country overnight and that 17 were shot down.
Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Seoul, and Shashank Bengali from Istanbul.