French foreign minister arrives in Odesa to assess Ukraine's needs

EU Foreign Affairs Ministers meet in Brussels

By Iryna Nazarchuk

ODESA, Ukraine (Reuters) -French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna arrived on Thursday in Odesa, the strategic port city on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, as part of France's efforts to boost its relationship with Ukraine and discuss its needs in the coming months.

UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, on Wednesday designated the city's historic centre a "World Heritage in Danger" site.

Colonna was in Odesa shortly after missile strikes hit crucial power infrastructure facilities in the surrounding region, causing blackouts in the city. She was due to visit one of the damaged sites.

"It's been a year since Russia launched this war carrying out atrocities and crimes. What we saw this morning with strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure is not waging war, it's waging war crimes," she told TFI television in Odesa.

The visit aims to send a message to Moscow amid Western fears that Russia, almost a year after invading Ukraine, may still want to launch an attack on the city to deprive Ukraine of its key maritime outlet for grain products.

"If Russia's objective is really to deprive Ukraine of all access to the sea, one day it will have to go as far as Odesa, knowing that Odesa, moreover, is the gateway to destabilise even more Moldova, Romania, and the European territory as a whole," a French diplomatic source told reporters ahead of the visit.

"The idea is to show that Odesa is not only a Ukrainian city, but a city designated as World Heritage," he said.

As part of the trip, Colonna is due to meet her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, to discuss humanitarian and military aid. The discussion is likely to include the question of whether France is ready to supply Leclerc main battle tanks after the United States and Germany committed to send tanks, opening the door for other allies to do so.

France has so far agreed to send AMX-10 RCs armoured combat vehicles, but stopped short of committing to sending the Leclercs. Paris argues that, unlike the German Leopards, which are omnipresent across Europe with as many as 2,000 available, there are only about 200 Leclercs. They are also no longer produced.

French sources say the Leclerc is heavy on maintenance making it difficult to create a logistical chain in Ukraine and given Paris would only be able to provide a small number, making their value on the ground limited. The government has said it is studying the request and would make a decision soon.

"I'm not saying it won't happen, but I don't think it would make a huge difference," the diplomat said, adding that Kyiv had made clear to France that its priority from Paris was air defence and radar systems as well as ammunition.

"This is not a delivery competition," he said.

(Writing and reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis)