Friday Jun 17, 2022
BRUSSELS/KYIV: The European Union gave its blessing on Friday for Ukraine and its neighbour Moldova to become candidates to join the bloc, reaching out deep into the former Soviet Union for what would be a major geopolitical shift resulting from Russia's invasion.
"Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference, wearing Ukrainian colours: a yellow blazer over a blue blouse. "We want them to live with us the European dream."
Though only the start of a process that may take many years, it puts Kyiv on course to realise an aspiration that would have been beyond its reach just months ago.
Ukraine applied to join the EU four days after Russian troops poured across its border in February. Another four days later, so did Moldova and Georgia — smaller ex-Soviet states also contending with separatist regions occupied by Russia.
"It's the first step on the EU membership path that'll certainly bring our victory closer," tweeted President Volodymyr Zelensky. "Precisely because of the bravery of the Ukrainians, Europe can create a new history of freedom, and finally remove the grey zone in Eastern Europe between the EU and Russia."
One of President Vladimir Putin's main objectives in launching an invasion that has killed thousands of people destroyed cities and driven millions to flight was to halt the West's eastward expansion via the NATO military alliance.
Friday's announcement underlined how the war has had the opposite effect: convincing Finland and Sweden to join NATO, and now the EU to embark on potentially its most ambitious expansion since welcoming Eastern European states after the Cold War.
Putin played down the EU issue, saying on Friday: "We have nothing against it. It is not a military bloc. It's the right of any country to join economic union."
Leaders of EU countries are expected to endorse the membership candidacy decision at a summit next week. The leaders of the three biggest — Germany, France and Italy — conveyed their solidarity on Thursday by visiting Kyiv, along with the president of Romania.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu hailed a "strong signal of support for Moldova and our citizens" and said her government was committed to working hard on the process.
In St Petersburg, Putin railed at the West in a grievance-filled speech to an annual economic conference once billed as the "Russian Davos" but now largely boycotted by Western dignitaries and corporate CEOs.
He denounced the United States for considering itself "God's emissary on Earth", said Western intransigence had given Russia no choice but to launch its "special military operation" in Ukraine, and vowed to overcome Western sanctions.
"We are strong people and can cope with any challenge. Like our ancestors, we will solve any problem, the entire thousand-year history of our country speaks of this," Putin said.
While recommending candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, the Commission held off for more volatile Georgia, which it said must first meet more conditions.
Joining the EU requires years of administrative reform — there are 35 "chapters of the acquis" setting out standards to meet in areas from judicial policy and financial services to food safety. Nor is membership guaranteed — talks have been stalled for years with Turkey, a candidate since 1999.
If admitted, Ukraine would be the EU's largest country by area and its fifth most populous. All three ex-Soviet hopefuls are far poorer than any existing EU members, with per capita output around half that of the current poorest, Bulgaria.
All three have recent histories of volatile politics, domestic unrest, entrenched organised crime and unresolved conflicts with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming sovereignty over territory protected by Moscow's troops.
But in Zelenskiy, 44, and Sandu, 50, Ukraine and Moldova both now have pro-Western leaders with strong electoral mandates, representing a generation that came of age outside the Soviet Union.
The latest foreign dignitary to visit Kyiv was Britain's Boris Johnson, who arrived on Friday for his second trip since the war began, offering training for Ukrainian troops.
"My visit today, in the depths of this war, is to send a clear and simple message to the Ukrainian people: the UK is with you, and we will be with you until you ultimately prevail," Johnson said.
Within Ukraine, Russian forces were defeated in an attempt to storm the capital in March but have since refocused on the east, using their artillery firepower advantage to blast their way into cities in a punishing attritional phase of the war.
Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out in Sievierodonetsk, site of the worst recent fighting, on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets river. It was impossible to evacuate more than 500 civilians trapped inside a chemical plant, the regional governor said.
In the surrounding Donbas region, which Moscow claims on behalf of its separatist proxies, Ukrainian forces are mainly defending the river's opposite bank.
Near the frontline in the ruins of the small city of Marinka, Ukrainian police made their way into a cellar searching for anyone who would accept help to leave. A group of mainly elderly residents huddled on mattresses in candlelight.
"There's space down here, you could join us," joked one man as the officers came in. A woman named Nina sighed in the darkness: "There is nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere to go. All the houses have been burnt out. Where can we go?"
In the south, Ukraine has mounted a counter-offensive, claiming to have made inroads into the biggest swathe still held by Russia of the territory it seized in the invasion.
Ukraine claimed its forces had struck a Russian vessel bringing soldiers, weapons and ammunition to Russian-occupied Snake Island, a strategic Black Sea outpost, its first successful strike with a Western-supplied anti-ship missile.