© Reuters. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy walk through Mikhailovsky Square while Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kiev, Ukraine, June 17, 2022. Press service of the Ukrainian President / Handout via REUTERS
Authors Robin Emmott and Max Hunder
BRUSSELS / KIEV (Reuters) – With the war raging in eastern Ukraine, Kiev received a big boost when the European Union recommended it become a candidate to join the bloc, a dramatic geopolitical change following Russia’s invasion.
EU leaders are expected to support EU executive recommendations for Ukraine and neighboring Moldova, announced Friday, at next week’s summit.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter that the courage of Ukrainians has created an opportunity for Europe to “create a new history of freedom and finally remove the gray zone in Eastern Europe between the EU and Russia.”
In his nightly address on national television, Zelenski said the decision of EU member states remains to be seen, but added: “You can only imagine a truly powerful European power, European independence and European development with Ukraine.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the decision of the executive branch while she was dressed in Ukrainian colors – a yellow jacket over a blue blouse.
“Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” she said. “We want the European dream to live with us.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the West, especially the United States, in a speech full of complaints in St. Petersburg on Friday, but sought to downplay the EU issue.
“We have nothing against that,” he said. “It’s not a military bloc. It’s every country’s right to join an economic union.”
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is closely following Ukraine’s EU bid, especially in light of increased co-operation in the defense sector between the 27-nation bloc.
Ukraine applied to join the EU four days after Russian troops crossed its border in late February. It was joined a few days later by Moldova and Georgia – smaller former Soviet states that are also struggling with Russian-backed separatist regions.
While this is just the beginning of a process that could take many years and requires extensive reforms, the European Commission’s move puts Kiev on track to achieve an aspiration that was unattainable just a few months ago.
One of Putin’s goals in launching an invasion that killed thousands of people, destroyed cities and forced millions to flee was to stop the spread of the West to the east through the NATO military alliance.
Friday’s statement underlined that the war had the opposite effect: persuading Finland and Sweden to join NATO, and now the EU, to embark on its potentially most ambitious expansion since it welcomed Eastern European countries after the Cold War.
In his speech, Putin condemned the United States because he considers himself “God’s envoy on Earth” and said that the intransigence of the West gave Russia no choice but to launch its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
He also asked if it was “advisable” for the EU to let Ukraine join, saying Kiev would need huge economic subsidies that other EU members may not be willing to give.
Adding oil to the global showdown, Russian media broadcast images, as they said, of two Americans captured while fighting for Ukraine. “I am against the war,” they both said in separate videos posted on social media.
EU membership is not guaranteed – negotiations have stalled for years with Turkey, a candidate since 1999. If recognized, Ukraine would be the largest EU country by area and fifth by population.
Ukraine and Moldova are far poorer than current EU members and have recent histories of unstable policies, organized crime and clashes with Russian-backed separatists.
But in Zelensky (44) and Mai Sand (50) they have pro-Western leaders who have come of age outside the Soviet Union.
The last foreign dignitary to visit Kiev was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who offered training for Ukrainian forces on Friday and said Britain would stand by the Ukrainian people “until you win in the end”.
In an online article in Foreign Policy magazine on Friday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the West should not “propose peace initiatives with unacceptable conditions” – an obvious reference to this month’s remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron that Russia should not be humiliated if diplomatic should is to find a solution.
Instead, Ukraine should be helped to win, not only by providing heavy weapons, but by maintaining and increasing sanctions against Moscow, Kuleba wrote.
“The West cannot afford sanctions fatigue, despite the wider economic costs,” he said. “It is clear that Putin’s path to the negotiating table lies solely through defeats on the battlefield.”
Inside Ukraine, Russian forces were defeated in an attempt to attack Kiev in March. Russia has since refocused on the Donbass region in the east, which it claims on behalf of separatist advocates, and its forces have used their artillery advantage to make their way to cities in the difficult phase of the war.
Pavlo Kirilenko, the governor of the Donetsk region in Donbas, said in a post on the Telegram that four civilians were killed and six were wounded in the shelling on Friday.
Ukrainian officials said their troops were still being held in Sierodonetsk, in the neighboring province of Luhansk and the site of the worst recent fighting, but it was impossible to evacuate more than 500 civilians trapped in the chemical plant due to shelling and heavy fighting.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said a key highway from Lisichansk, the sister city of Sierrodonetsk, is now impassable due to Russian shelling.
In the south, Ukraine has launched a counter-offensive and claims to have infiltrated Russian-occupied territory.