BRUSSELS. On Thursday, the European Union officially nominated Ukraine as a member candidate, signaling in the face of a devastating Russian military offensive that it sees Ukraine’s future in the arms of the democratic West.
While it could take a decade or more for Ukraine to join the bloc, the decision sends a powerful signal of solidarity to Kyiv and a rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has worked for years to prevent Ukraine from forging ties with the West.
Before Mr. Putin launched an invasion in February, insisting that Ukraine rightfully belonged to Russia’s orbit, EU leaders did not seriously consider starting Ukraine’s path to membership, with its history of oligarchy and corruption.
The decision comes at a critical juncture in the war as Russia threatens to seize new territory in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces are outgunned and at risk of being surrounded in fierce fighting around the city of Lysichansk.
EU-27 leaders meeting Thursday in Brussels also granted candidate status to Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor Moldova, fueled by fears of Russian aggression in the region. Both countries, former Soviet republics, are on a difficult path to membership in the bloc, which will require them to reform their political and economic systems, strengthen the rule of law and fight corruption.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky called the EU decision “one of the most important decisions for Ukraine” in its 30 years of existence as an independent state.
“This is the greatest step towards the strengthening of Europe that could be taken right now, in our time, and precisely in the context of the war with Russia, which is testing our ability to maintain freedom and unity,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview that the decision to nominate Ukraine shows that the bloc is “overcoming the last psychological barrier in relations between Ukraine and the European Union.”
He said he was not worried about how long it might take Ukraine to join the European Union, which he likened to a “liberal empire” that is expanding as “the Russian empire shrinks.”
“It could take a year. It could take a decade,” Mr. Kuleba said. “But 10 years ago, in the perception of the European elite, we were still part of the Russian world.”
The prospect of membership in the European Union has been clouded in Ukraine by the daily brutality of the invasion. Russian forces are striking at the last pocket of resistance in eastern Luhansk region, where intensifying fighting appears to be putting Ukrainian forces at risk of the worst casualties since the fall of Mariupol a month ago.
On Thursday, Russian troops pierced the Ukrainian supply lines in this pocket. However, there was no sign of a widespread retreat by Ukrainian forces as a Ukrainian fighter jet swept across the sky and troops took up defensive positions.
Better Understand the Russo-Ukrainian War
Amid fierce fighting, Ukraine’s defense chief hailed the arrival of advanced artillery rocket launchers from the United States, the latest in a arsenal of powerful weapons from the West. But it remains unclear whether the relatively small number of HIMARS rocket-propelled artillery systems sent by the Pentagon will change the dynamics of the battlefield.
The White House on Thursday authorized $450 million in new military aid to Ukraine on top of the billions delivered so far this year, including four more HIMARS launchers, 1,200 grenade launchers, 2,000 machine guns and 18 patrol boats, the Pentagon said.
The Ukrainian military command said Moscow continues to add men and armor to capture Lysichansk and crush Ukrainian resistance in nearby Severodonetsk. Cities lie on both sides of the Seversky Donets River.
On Thursday, shelling of supply lines leading towards Lisichansk did not stop. Ukrainian rocket launchers with loaded barrels waited to take position or raced towards the front. What turned out to be two cruise missiles also hit Bakhmut, about 30 miles to the southwest, a Ukrainian supply center, sending mushroom clouds of smoke into the air.
Military analysts said the stubborn Ukrainian defense had severely depleted Russia’s combat forces. But Ukraine also suffered heavy losses and turned to undertrained troops as reinforcements.
Comparing the two armies to boxers exhausted after 18 rounds, Mr. Zelenskiy’s adviser said the battle had reached a “terrible climax.”
“There is a threat of a tactical victory for the Russians, but they have not done it yet,” adviser Aleksey Arestovich said on national television.
Making Ukraine a candidate for membership in the European Union will not have an immediate impact on the fight, but will simply start an uncertain process of accession. Turkey has been a candidate since 1999 and North Macedonia since 2005, both of which have yet to join the bloc. In a system that works by consensus, any nation effectively has a veto over new members.
However, the decision was meant to irritate Mr. Putin, who has had tense and strained relations with the European Union, as well as the desire of a growing number of Ukrainians to join him.
When asked last week about Ukraine’s upcoming candidate status, Mr. Putin responded in an uncharacteristically subdued voice. “We have no objections,” he said.
But since then, Russian officials have been sending much harsher signals.
“We view the process of EU enlargement as negative – in fact, hostile – to Russia’s national interests,” said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the bloc. said state newspaper this week.
In fact, Ukraine’s desire to move closer to the European Union has contributed to almost a decade of conflict. In 2013, Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was on the verge of signing a popular trade deal with the EU, but under pressure from Mr. Putin, he pulled it out. Massive pro-Western protests followed, toppling Mr. Yanukovych, and in response, Mr. Putin took Crimea from Ukraine and instigated a separatist insurgency that took control of parts of the eastern Donbas region.
The Kremlin claims that Ukraine’s membership bid is a product of an anti-Russian alliance between Washington and London that is pushing these efforts against the interests of the European Union – a view that European leaders dismiss as absurd.
Russian officials also portray European Union enlargement as a twin threat alongside NATO enlargement. The justification for starting the war offered by Mr. Putin and his entourage is largely based on unsubstantiated claims that NATO is moving into Ukraine.
Mr. Chizhov, Russian Ambassador, said The Izvestiya newspaper that the European Union “recently has degraded to the level of an auxiliary military bloc, auxiliary to NATO.”
For both Russians and Ukrainians, the question of whether Ukraine will ever join the European Union is secondary to the more pressing question of how the country has weathered the Russian invasion. This may be one of the reasons why Ukraine’s membership bid has not made headlines in Russia.
“There is a point of view that Ukraine will either not exist or will not exist within its current geographic boundaries,” said Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government, describing the situation. view in Moscow. “This meaning further reduces the significance of the decision on the status of a candidate. Because everything can change.”
Russia is also using its vast energy resources to inflict economic damage on Ukraine’s European allies.
A week after Russian state energy giant Gazprom cut natural gas supplies to Germany by 60 percent, Germany launched the second phase of its three-phase contingency plan on Thursday, warning it was in a crisis that could worsen in the coming months. . .
“The situation is serious, winter is coming soon,” German Economics Minister Robert Habeck said at a press conference in Berlin. The third step of the plan will allow the government to begin gas rationing.
“Even if you don’t feel it yet: we have a gas crisis,” he said. “From now on, gas is a scarce commodity. Prices are already high and we should be prepared for further increases. This will affect industrial production and will be a big burden for many consumers.”
Mr Khabek called Gazprom’s cuts a deliberate economic attack by Mr Putin.
“Obviously Putin’s strategy,” he said, “is to create uncertainty, drive up prices, and divide us as a society.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels. Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Bakhmut, Ukraine, and Michael Levenson from New York. The report has been provided Natalya Ermak from Bakhmut, Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Anton Troyanovsky as well as Melissa Eddy from Berlin John Ismay from Washington, Mark Santora from Warsaw and Monika Pronchuk from Brussels.