European Union leaders welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a standing ovation Thursday as he pleaded for fighter jets to fend off Russia's nearly year-long invasion and pushed for European Union membership for his war-torn country.
"A Ukraine that is winning is going to be member of the European Union," Zelenskyy told the European Parliament in Brussels, equating his appeal around a common destiny with other European countries in confronting Russia.
"Europe will always be and remain Europe as long as we ... take care of the European way of life," he said.
Zelenskyy said that talks about Ukraine joining the 27-nation EU bloc should start later this year, and that such discussions would help motivate Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield. But EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen cautioned, "There is no rigid timeline" for talks on Ukraine joining the EU.
European Parliament head Roberta Metsola said she backs Zelenskyy's call for more support. "We know the sacrifice your people have endured for Europe, and we must honor it not only with words but with action," Metsola said. "The jets you need to protect the liberty too many have taken for granted."
Metsola called on EU member states to take additional action. EU states already have sent $53.6 billion in aid and military hardware to Kyiv and have imposed sanctions nine times on the Kremlin.
"We have your back," she said. "We were with you then, we are with you now, we will be with you for as long as it takes."
After Zelenskyy spoke, he held up an EU flag, and the entire legislature stood in somber silence as the Ukrainian national anthem and the European anthem "Ode to Joy" were played in succession.
Russia has tracked Zelenskyy's two-day trip to London, Paris and Brussels and his appeals for fighter jets and other assistance.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia's Security Council chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin, visited a Siberian arms factory Thursday and declared that Russia will respond to the Western aid by churning out thousands of tanks.
"Our enemy was begging for aircraft, missiles and tanks on a trip abroad," Medvedev said during a visit to the factory in Omsk. "We will naturally increase the output of various types of weapons and military equipment, including modern tanks. We are talking about production and modernization of thousands of tanks."
In its latest assessment, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Russian forces "have regained the initiative in Ukraine and have begun their next major offensive" in the eastern Luhansk region, most of which is occupied by Russia. "Russian forces are gradually beginning an offensive, but its success is not inherent or predetermined," the institute declared.
Ukraine has in recent days said that Russia is beginning a renewed offensive to coincide with the first anniversary of its invasion on February 24.
"An escalation is underway, and the main goal is to seize [the eastern] Donbas [region] by the end of March," Main Intelligence Directorate spokesman Andriy Yusov told Ukrainian television.
The front line has expanded in the Donetsk province in the last day, with fierce battles taking place as Moscow's forces closed in on key Ukrainian-held towns, according to Ukrainian regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko. Russian shelling struck a kindergarten, hospital, cultural center, factory and apartment buildings, he said.
"The intensity of the shelling has increased dramatically, and we are seeing a significant intensification of activity by the Russian army immediately in the south, center and north of the region," Kyrylenko said. "Russia is again actively using combat aircraft to shell our cities and villages."
Russian forces also have ramped up attacks in neighboring Luhansk province, launching "a broad offensive," regional Gov. Serhii Haidai said.
In the northeastern Kharkiv province, 23 cities and villages came under shelling. In the border city of Vovchansk, shelling damaged about 10 apartment buildings.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.