BRUSSELS -- European Union leaders Thursday endorsed a plan to send Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition over the next 12 months to help it counter Russia's invasion forces. Meanwhile, Slovakia said the first four of 13 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets that it's contributing to the effort have been handed over to the Ukrainian air force.
EU foreign and defense ministers approved the plan for a fast-track purchasing procedure earlier this week, and the leaders of the bloc's 27 member nations gave it their political blessing at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.
"Taking into account the security and defense interests of all member states, the European Council welcomes the agreement ... to deliver ground-to-ground and artillery ammunition to Ukraine and, if requested, missiles," the meeting's conclusions on Ukraine read.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked leaders for the initiative earlier during a video call.
Zelenskyy, who spoke from a moving train as he visited front-line areas, said: "Not only months and weeks, but also days are important. The faster we act together, the more lives we save," according to video posted on the presidential website.
"But, dear colleagues, don't you feel that we have fewer new successes than new protractions in our joint efforts? Unfortunately, this is the case. And the Kremlin sees this. This moves us further away from achieving peace," he said.
Zelenskyy also asked leaders to deliver modern aircraft and long-range missiles to help Ukraine's resistance.
With Ukraine facing ammunition shortages after more than a year of fighting, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas brought to the table last month the idea of the EU setting up a joint purchasing plan similar to the one devised during the coronavirus pandemic to buy vaccines.
"What is critical is sending ammunition to Ukraine fast, because that might bring a change in this war," Kallas said as she arrived at the summit.
Under the plan, the European Defense Agency will -- in parallel with deliveries -- aggregate requests from member states to restock, and lead a fast-track procedure for direct negotiations with industrial providers of ammunition in Europe.
According to various estimates, Ukraine is firing 6,000-7,000 artillery shells a day, around a third of Russia's total.
"The EU supports Ukraine in its relentless quest for freedom," European Council President Charles Michel said. "We stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes."
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this week that he secured approval for earmarking $1.1 billion to encourage member nations to provide artillery shells from their existing stocks and any pending orders. Another $1.1 billion would go toward accelerating new orders and encouraging countries to work together on making purchases through the European Defense Agency or in groups of at least three nations.
Hungary has said it will not take part in getting ammunition to Ukraine, citing its commitment to peace, but said it wouldn't prevent other members from doing so by blocking the deal.
Last month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the EU was partly to blame for prolonging Russia's war in Ukraine by sanctioning Russia and supplying Ukraine with money and weapons, rather than seeking to negotiate peace with Moscow.
Bulgaria's president, Rumen Radev, also ruled out the delivery of shells as long as a caretaker government remains in charge in the country.
"This is our sovereign decision," he said. "Bulgaria will support European diplomatic efforts to restore peace."
Leaders also discussed the possibility of topping up with an extra $3.8 billion the European Peace Facility -- a fund being used to reimburse member countries that provide weapons, ammunition and military support to Ukraine.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined the EU leaders for lunch on Thursday. Guterres described a grim global situation, with the world facing a "perfect storm" in many parts of the world.
"More hunger, more poverty, less education, less health services," he said. "And it is clear that our international financial system is not fit for purpose to deal with such a huge challenge."
FIGHTER JETS FROM SLOVAKIA
The first four of 13 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets that Slovakia decided to give Ukraine have been safely handed over to the Ukrainian air force, the Slovak Defense Ministry said on Thursday.
The ministry said the warplanes were flown from Slovakia to Ukraine by Ukrainian pilots with help from the Slovak air force, Ukrainian personnel and others.
"I thank (all) involved for a fantastic professional job," Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad said.
The ministry said the remaining MiG-29s will be handed over to the Ukrainian side in the coming weeks. It said it will not provide any additional details until they're safely in Ukraine.
Last week, the Slovak government approved a plan to give Ukraine its fleet of 13 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, becoming the second NATO member to heed the Ukrainian government's pleas for warplanes to help defend against Russia's invasion.
Slovakia grounded its MiGs in the summer due to a lack of spare parts and expertise to help maintain them. Fellow NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic stepped in to monitor Slovak air space.
Slovakia previously signed a deal to buy 14 U.S. F-16 Block 70/72 fighter jets, but delivery was pushed back two years, with the first aircraft to arrive in early 2024.
The Slovak Defense Ministry said Wednesday the United States has offered Slovakia 12 new military helicopters as compensation for the fighter jets the European country is giving to Ukraine. Under the offer, Slovakia would pay $340 million for the Bell AH-1Z attack choppers in a deal worth about $1 billion. U.S. foreign military financing would cover the other $660 million.
ZELENSKYY VISITS KHERSON
Ukraine's president on Thursday made his third visit in two days to areas that have felt the brunt of Russia's war, with a trip to the southern Kherson region that was retaken from the Kremlin's forces, and as a senior Kyiv commander hinted that a brewing Ukrainian counteroffensive could come "very soon."
Ukraine took back control of the Kherson region's capital, also called Kherson, at the end of last year, pushing out the Russian occupiers who had captured the city in the weeks following the start of Moscow full-scale invasion more than a year ago. The Dnieper River now marks the front line in the region, which is still partially occupied.
While in Kherson on Thursday, Zelenskyy met with local security officials and inspected infrastructure damaged by Russian strikes, his office said.
On Wednesday, Zelenskyy visited Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, in northeastern Ukraine. Kyiv's troops recaptured Kharkiv from the Russians last September as part of the same months-long counteroffensive that won back Kherson.
Also Wednesday, Zelenskyy met with troops in the eastern Donetsk region, stopping by a hospital to see wounded soldiers and giving state awards to the defenders of Bakhmut, a wrecked city that is now a symbol of Ukraine's dogged resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitions.
Zelenskyy's 48 hours of visits far from Kyiv -- and close to the front line -- came as improving weather sets the stage for possible new offensives by both sides. The biting winter weather, followed by mud as the ground thawed out, have prevented major changes on the battlefield, and the war has largely been deadlocked in recent months.
Russian forces have been digging in where they hold territory in the four provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September -- Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia. Putin has made it clear he wants to have control there.
Ukraine's ground forces commander said Thursday that Russian forces are "exhausting themselves" in their grinding push to take Bakhmut, giving Kyiv a window of opportunity for a counterstrike.
Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a Telegram post that the Russian assault on Bakhmut was causing Russian forces to "lose considerable strength."
"Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we once did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliia and Kupiansk," Syrskyi added, referencing Ukraine's counteroffensive last year that pushed Russia back from the country's capital and large swathes of the northeast.
Russia has kept up its long-range attacks using artillery, missiles and drones, meanwhile.
The death toll from a Russian drone attack Wednesday on a high school and dormitories south of Kyiv rose to nine, Ukrainian emergency services reported.
Russia on Wednesday also struck a nine-story apartment building in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia where at least one person was killed.
Information for this article was contributed by Samuel Petrequin, Lorne Cook, Veselin Toshkov, Karl Ritter and staff writers of The Associated Press.