BRUSSELS — The European Union formally nominated Ukraine as a candidate for membership on Thursday, signaling in the face of a devastating Russian military attack that it sees Ukraine’s future as lying in an embrace of the democratic West.
While Ukraine’s joining the bloc could take a decade or more, the decision sends a powerful message of solidarity to Kyiv and a rebuke to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has worked for years to prevent Ukraine to forge ties with the West.
Before Mr Putin launched the invasion in February, insisting that Ukraine was rightly in the Russian orbit, EU leaders reportedly did not seriously consider launching Ukraine, with its history of oligarchy and corruption, on its way to membership.
The decision came at a critical time in the war, as Russia threatens to seize more territory in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces are underarmed and risk being surrounded in fierce fighting around the town of Lysychansk.
Leaders of the 27 EU countries, meeting in Brussels on Thursday, also granted candidate status to Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor Moldova, spurred by concerns over Russian aggression in the region. Both countries, former Soviet republics, face difficult paths to joining the bloc that will require them to reform their political and economic systems, strengthen the rule of law and fight corruption.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the EU decision “one of the most important decisions for Ukraine” in its 30 years of independence.
“It is the greatest step towards the strengthening of Europe that can be taken at this time, in our time, and precisely in the context of the Russian war, which is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity” , Mr. Zelensky wrote on Telegram.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview that the decision to grant Ukraine’s candidacy showed that the bloc “overcame the last psychological barrier in relations between Ukraine and the European Union”. .
He said he was not concerned about how long it would take Ukraine to join the European Union, which he likened to a “liberal empire” that expands as “the shrinking Russian empire”.
“It may take a year. It may take a decade,” Kuleba said. “But 10 years ago, in the perception of the European elite, we were still part of the Russian world.”
The prospect of EU membership has been clouded in Ukraine by the daily brutality of the invasion. Russian forces are hammering the last pocket of resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk, where an escalating battle appears to put Ukrainian troops at risk of their greatest casualties since the fall of Mariupol a month ago.
On Thursday, Russian forces shelled Ukrainian supply lines in this pocket. Yet there was no sign of a broad retreat of Ukrainian forces, as a Ukrainian fighter jet howled overhead and troops dug into defensive positions.
Better understand the Russian-Ukrainian war
Amid fierce fighting, Ukraine’s defense chief hailed the arrival of advanced artillery rocket launcher systems from the United States, the latest in a cache of powerful weapons from the West. But it remains unclear whether the relatively small number of HIMARS rocket 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, in addition to the billions already delivered this year, including four more HIMARS launchers, 1,200 grenade launchers, 2,000 machine guns and 18 patrol boats, the White House said. Pentagon.
Ukraine’s military high command said Moscow was continuing to add more men and armor in the fight to capture Lysychansk and finish off Ukrainian resistance in nearby Sievierodonetsk. The towns lie on either side of the Siversky Donets River.
On Thursday, shelling near supply lines heading towards Lysychansk was incessant. The Ukrainian rocket launchers, their tubes loaded, waited to move into position or sped forward. What appeared to be two cruise missiles also hit Bakhmut, about 30 miles to the southwest, a supply hub for the Ukrainians, sending mushroom clouds of smoke into the air.
Military analysts said Ukrainian defense stubbornness had severely depleted Russia’s combat strength. But Ukraine also suffered heavy casualties and turned to under-trained troops for reinforcements.
Likening the two armies to exhausted boxers after 18 rounds, an adviser to Mr Zelensky said the battle was reaching its “dreadful climax”.
“The threat of a Russian tactical victory is there, but they haven’t done it yet,” adviser Oleksiy Arestovich told state television.
Making Ukraine a candidate for EU membership will have no immediate effect on the struggle and will only start an uncertain process towards membership. Turkey has been a candidate since 1999 and North Macedonia since 2005, and both have yet to join the bloc. In a system that works by consensus, any nation effectively has a right of veto over new members.
Yet the decision could only anger Mr Putin, who has had a charged and vexatious relationship with the European Union – and with the desire of growing numbers of Ukrainians to join.
Asked last week about Ukraine’s looming candidate status, Mr Putin sounded uncharacteristically moderate. “We have no objections,” he said.
But since then, Russian officials have sent much clearer signals.
“We consider the EU enlargement process to be negative – hostile, in fact – to Russian national interests,” Russia’s ambassador to the bloc, Vladimir A. Chizhov, told an official newspaper this week. week.
In fact, Ukraine’s desire to draw closer to the European Union has helped spark nearly a decade of conflict. In 2013, a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, was about to sign a popular trade deal with the EU when he reneged under pressure from Mr Putin. Mass pro-Western protests followed, toppling Mr Yanukovych, and Mr Putin responded by seizing Crimea from Ukraine and fomenting a separatist insurgency that took control of parts of the eastern region of Donbass.
The Kremlin has argued that Ukraine’s bid for membership is the product of an anti-Russian alliance between Washington and London that has pushed the effort against the best interests of the European Union – a view that the European leaders dismiss it as absurd.
Russian officials have also described the expansion of the European Union as a dual threat alongside the expansion of NATO. The rationale that Mr. Putin and his entourage have advanced for going to war relies heavily on unsubstantiated claims that NATO was moving towards Ukraine.
Mr Chizhov, the Russian ambassador, told the Izvestia newspaper that the European Union “has recently degraded to the level of an auxiliary military bloc, auxiliary to NATO”.
For Russians and Ukrainians alike, the question of whether Ukraine will ever join the European Union is secondary to the more immediate question of how the country will survive the Russian invasion. This may be one of the reasons why Ukraine’s application for membership did not make headlines in Russia.
“There is a view that Ukraine will not or will not exist within its current geographical borders,” said Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian Council for International Affairs, a research organization close to the government. Russian, describing seeing him in Moscow. “This sentiment further diminishes the importance of the candidate status decision. Because everything can change.
Russia is also using its vast energy resources to inflict economic pain on Ukraine’s European allies.
A week after Russian energy giant Gazprom cut natural gas deliveries to Germany by 60%, Germany on Thursday triggered the second stage of its three-step gas contingency plan. , warning that she was in a crisis that could worsen in the coming months. .
“The situation is serious and winter will come,” said Robert Habeck, German Economy Minister, at a press conference in Berlin. The third stage of the plan would allow the government to begin gas rationing.
“Even if you don’t feel it yet: we are in a gas crisis,” he said. “Gas is now a rare commodity. Prices are already high and we must be prepared for further increases. It will affect industrial production and become a big burden for many consumers.
Mr Habeck called the Gazprom cuts a deliberate economic attack by Mr Putin.
“It’s obviously Putin’s strategy,” he said, “to create insecurity, 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 was provided by Natalia Yermak of Bakhmut, Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Anton Troyanovsky and Melissa Eddy from Berlin, Jean Ismay from washington, Marc Santora of Warsaw and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.