in Brussels Leaders of G7 states and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy will hold talks on Sunday as he pushes western powers to accelerate weapons deliveries to Kyiv and intensify sanctions on Russia over its 10-week, all-out war against his country.
The conference call will take place as Ukraine steps up security measures ahead of Monday's Victory Day holiday in Russia, when its president, Vladimir Putin, is expected to oversee a parade of powerful weaponry on Red Square and hail his country's military might.
"I think it should not be lost – the significance – on anyone, the significance of when . . . this G7 meeting is happening," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday.
“President Putin has certainly projected his desire to mark that day as a day where he is victorious over Ukraine . . . While he expected to be marching through the streets of Kyiv, that certainly is not going to happen,” she added.
The Kremlin has denied speculation that Mr Putin will use his speech on Victory Day – when Russia celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany – to formally declare war on Kyiv or to announce mass mobilisation of his countrymen to help it achieve the Kremlin's stated goal of "denazifying" Ukraine.
Moscow also denies planning to hold a large Victory Day event in Mariupol, the port city in southeastern Ukraine that Russia now controls after a two-month siege and devastating bombing campaign that Ukrainian officials say may have killed 20,000 civilians.
Ukrainian soldiers are still inside Mariupol's vast Azovstal steelworks, from where Russian state media said dozens of civilians were evacuated on Friday. The United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross were also trying get civilians out of the plant.
EU ambassadors expect talks to run into the weekend, as several member states push for delays to ease the local impact of fresh sanctions designed to hit Russia’s oil industry and hamper Moscow’s ability to finance its war.
Under proposals set out by the European Commission, Russian oil imports would be phased out, new individuals would be subject to asset freezes and travel bans – including the jingoistic head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill – and Russia's biggest bank, Sberbank, would be ejected from the Swift international payments system.
Agreement proved elusive on Friday as some member states pushed for more time to phase out their use of Russian oil, with landlocked Hungary and Slovakia offered a grace period due to their high dependency, reliance on factories designed for Russian crude, and lack of infrastructure to receive supplies from elsewhere.
Overnight, a proposal to give these countries until the end of 2023 to implement the measure was extended to the end of 2024, and the Czech Republic was also offered a grace period, according to EU sources.
Proposals to stop EU ships delivering Russian oil around the world met with concern from shipping heavyweights Greece and Malta, who pushed for the agreement to be made international to prevent ships changing their flags and taking business away from the EU.
Hungary remained particularly reluctant to agree, sources said, while hardline states do not want to make major concessions. It was enough to prevent the package, which requires unanimity, from being finalised by Friday afternoon.
Kyiv has been pushing hard for sanctions to be as tough as possible, arguing that every euro allows Russia to continue paying for its war.
“Reach an agreement. Do not make exceptions for individual countries, act together. This is the essence of a united EU,” Mr Zelenskiy said in a video address on Friday, adding that Russia earns a billion euro a day from energy exports.
“You shouldn’t be a little evil and a little good. It is inadmissible to impose sanctions, and with another hand to sign new contracts with Russia . . . This is hypocrisy.”
EU countries are searching for a possible legal route to seize and redistribute assets of those on the sanctions list, potentially to help fund reconstruction of Ukraine.
US president Joe Biden is expected, meanwhile, to authorise a further $100 million (€95 million) in military aid to Ukraine including additional artillery munitions.
The new initiative, which is likely to be announced over the weekend according to US media reports, will bring the total value of armaments provided by the United States to Ukraine since the Russian invasion in late February to about $3.4 billion (€3.2 billion).
Among the weapons that have been provided by the US to Ukraine were howitzers, anti-aircraft Stinger and anti-tank Javelin missiles, ammunition and “ghost” drones.
Last month Mr Biden proposed an additional $33 billion (€31.3 billion) assistance package for Ukraine, including more than $20 billion (€18.9 billion) in military aid. This proposal would have to be backed by the US Congress.