Ursula von der Leyen sat in the VIP carriage of a Ukrainian train, a slight figure clad in a collared shirt and light jumper. Rattling through dark, forested countryside an hour outside Kyiv, the European Commission president and her entourage were making their way back towards the EU border. The table had been cleared of beer cans and wine bottles left over from a meeting with journalists. None of the drinks had been touched by the 64-year-old von der Leyen. A server set her a place with napkins in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, before laying out a dinner of potato, cheese and wild herb pie. A faint smell of lignite drifted through the elaborate, golden interior.
Von der Leyen was returning to Brussels following a summit with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during which she stepped up her push for Ukraine to be admitted into the EU. Such a move would be the most radical reshaping of the union since Brexit, so the visit was a carefully stage-managed show of support for Zelenskyy, attended by von der Leyen, European Council president Charles Michel and more than a dozen commissioners. The meetings were briefly interrupted when air-raid sirens echoed through the Ukrainian capital, forcing the commission president to shelter in a basement.