Zelensky meets Italy’s PM before talks with Pope Francis in Rome

Volodymyr Zelensky meets Italy’s Giorgia Meloni (AFP via Getty Images)
Volodymyr Zelensky meets Italy’s Giorgia Meloni (AFP via Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Rome for talks with Italian leaders and Pope Francis on Saturday.

The Vatican has launched a behind-the-scenes initiative to try to end the war launched last year by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Mr Zelensky was greeted at Rome’s Ciampino airport by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.

Tajani told reporters that Italy will continue to support Ukraine “360 degrees” and press for a just peace, one that safeguards Ukraine’s independence.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni staunchly backs military and other aid for Ukraine.

But while her far-right Brothers of Italy party fiercely champions the principle of national sovereignty, Ms Meloni has had to contend with leaders of two coalition partners who have openly professed for years their admiration for Russian dictator Putin.

Silvio Berlusconi, the former premier, boasted of his friendship with Putin, while another government ally, League leader Matteo Salvini, has questioned the value of economic sanctions against Russia.

Mr Zelensky tweeted: “Today in Rome, I’m meeting with President of Italy Sergio Mattarella, Prime Minister of Italy @GiorgiaMeloni and the Pope @Pontifex. An important visit for approaching victory of Ukraine!”

Ukraine’s president began his official meetings by calling on Mattarella, who is head of state, at the presidential Quirinale Palace.

Rain let up just in time about noon for the two to view an honour guard in the palace courtyard atop the Quirinal Hill, and Mr Zelensky stood with his hand over his heart as an Italian military band played Ukraine’s anthem.

“We are fully at your side,″ Mattarella told Mr Zelensky at the start of their meeting.

The Ukrainian leader then headed to the premier’s office at Chigi Palace.

The pair embraced in the palace courtyard, before the two headed to their closed-door talks.

En route to his appointments, Mr Zelensky’s motorcade passed by cheering Ukrainians who had waited in the rain to welcome him during his visit to the Italian capital, expected to last several hours.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella escorting Volodymyr Zelensky (Quirinale Press Office/AFP via G)
Italian President Sergio Mattarella escorting Volodymyr Zelensky (Quirinale Press Office/AFP via G)

Near the presidential palace was Mariya Hrytskevych, a Ukrainian citizen living in Italy, who noted that Mr Zelensky is “traveling a lot for our good — to fight and to find more help, because we need help.”

Mr Zelensky is believed to be heading to Berlin next.

His exact schedule hadn’t been publicly announced because of security concerns, and the Vatican only confirmed a papal meeting shortly before the Ukrainian president’s plane touched down.

Italian state radio reported that as part of protective measures, a no-fly zone was ordered for Rome skies and police sharpshooters were strategically placed on high buildings.

Ms Meloni met with Zelensky in Kyiv, shortly before the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Pope Francis, who is eager for peace, last met with the Ukrainian leader in 2020.

The pontiff makes frequent impassioned pleas on behalf of Ukraine’s “martyred” people, in his words.

At the end of April, flying back to Rome from a trip to Hungary, Pope Francis told reporters on the plane 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.

Last month, Ukraine’s prime minister met with Pope Francis at the Vatican and said he asked the pontiff to help Ukraine get back children illegally taken to Russia during the invasion.