BRUSSELS — The European Union officially nominated Ukraine for membership on Thursday, signaling that Ukraine’s future lies in an embrace of the democratic West in the face of a devastating Russian military attack.
While Ukraine’s accession to the bloc could take a decade or more, the decision sends a strong message of solidarity to Kiev and a rebuke to Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin, who has worked for years to stop Ukraine from breaking western ties. to build.
Before Putin launched the invasion in February and insisted that Ukraine rightfully belonged in Russia’s orbit, EU leaders would not have seriously considered starting Ukraine, with its history of oligarchy and corruption, on the path to membership.
The decision came at a critical time in the war as Russia threatens to take more territory in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces are defeated and at risk of being surrounded in fierce fighting around the city of Lysychansk.
Leaders of the 27 EU countries, meeting in Brussels on Thursday, also granted candidate status to Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor, Moldova, spurred on by concerns over Russian aggression in the region. Both countries, former Soviet republics, face difficult roads to join the bloc, requiring them to reform their political and economic systems, strengthen the rule of law and fight corruption.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called the EU’s move “one of the most important decisions for Ukraine” in his 30 years as an independent state.
“This is the greatest step towards strengthening Europe that can be taken now, in our time, and precisely in the context of the Russian war, which is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity,” wrote the Mr Zelensky on Telegram.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview that the decision to grant Ukraine’s candidacy shows the bloc “overcoming the last psychological barrier in relations between Ukraine and the European Union”.
He said he was not worried about how long it would take for Ukraine to join the European Union, which he compared to a “liberal empire” expanding as the “Russian empire shrinks.”
“It could take a year. It could take a decade,” said Mr. kuleba. “But ten years ago, in the perception of the European elite, we were still part of the Russian world.”
The prospect of European Union membership has been overshadowed in Ukraine by the daily brutality of the invasion. Russian forces are engaged in the latest resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk, where an intensification of fighting appears to put Ukrainian forces at risk of their worst losses since the fall of Mariupol a month ago.
On Thursday, Russian troops slammed Ukrainian supply lines into that pocket. Still, there was no sign of a broad withdrawal by Ukrainian forces, as a Ukrainian fighter jet screamed through the air and troops dug into defensive positions.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
Amid the fierce fighting, the Ukrainian defense chief praised the arrival of advanced artillery rocket launching systems from the United States, the latest in a stockpile of powerful weapons from the West. But it remains unclear whether the relatively small number of HIMARS missile artillery systems sent by the Pentagon will change the dynamics of the battlefield.
The White House on Thursday approved $450 million in new military aid to Ukraine, in addition to billions already delivered 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 high command said Moscow continued to add men and armor in the battle to capture Lysychansk and end Ukrainian resistance in nearby Sievierodonetsk. The towns lie on either side of the Siversky Donets River.
Thursday saw incessant shelling at the supply lines running towards Lysychansk. Ukrainian rocket launchers, their tubes loaded, waited to get into position or rushed forward. What appeared to be two cruise missiles also hit Bakhmut, about 30 miles to the southwest, a supply hub for Ukrainians, sending mushroom-shaped clouds of smoke into the sky.
Military analysts said the stubborn Ukrainian defenses have seriously depleted Russia’s armed forces. But Ukraine has also absorbed heavy casualties and turned to reinforcements for undertrained troops.
An advisor to Mr. Zelensky compared the two armies to boxers who were exhausted after 18 rounds and said the fight was reaching its “terrifying climax”.
“The threat of a tactical Russian victory is there, but they haven’t done it yet,” adviser Oleksiy Arestovich told national television.
Making Ukraine a candidate for membership of the European Union will have no immediate effect on the struggle and will only usher in an uncertain process towards accession. 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, each country basically has a veto over new members.
Still, the decision was supposed to irritate Mr Putin, who has had a fraught and tedious relationship with the European Union — and with the desire of a growing number of Ukrainians to join it.
When asked last week about Ukraine’s impending candidate status, Mr Putin sounded unusually subdued. “We have no objection,” he said.
But since then, Russian officials have sent out much sharper signals.
“We view the EU enlargement process as negative – even hostile – in relation to Russian national interests,” Russia’s ambassador to the bloc, Vladimir A. Chizhov, told a state newspaper this week.
In fact, Ukraine’s desire to move closer to the European Union has helped spark nearly a decade of conflict. In 2013, a Kremlin-backed president of Ukraine, Viktor F. Yanukovych, was on the brink of signing a popular EU trade deal when he waived pressure from Putin. Massive pro-Western protests followed, overthrowing Yanukovych, and Mr Putin reacting by taking Crimea from Ukraine and fomenting a separatist insurgency that took control of parts of the eastern Donbas region.
The Kremlin has argued that Ukraine’s membership is the product of an anti-Russian alliance between Washington and London that has pushed the effort against the interests of the European Union — a stance that European leaders dismiss as absurd.
Russian officials have also portrayed the expansion of the European Union as a double threat alongside NATO expansion. The rationale that Mr Putin and his circle have offered to go to war relies heavily on unfounded claims that NATO entered Ukraine.
Mr Chizhov, the Russian ambassador, told Izvestia newspaper that the European Union “has recently been relegated to the level of a military aid bloc, a NATO aid unit.”
For both Russians and Ukrainians, the question of whether Ukraine will ever join the European Union is secondary to the more direct question of how the country will survive the Russian invasion. That may be one of the reasons why Ukraine’s membership has not been top news in Russia.
“There is a 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. on display in Moscow. “This feeling further diminishes the importance of the candidate status decision. Because everything can change.”
Russia is also using its vast energy resources to hurt Ukraine’s European allies economically.
A week after Russia’s state energy giant, Gazprom, cut its natural gas supplies to Germany by 60 percent, Germany launched the second phase of its three-step emergency gas plan on Thursday, warning it was in a crisis that could worsen in the coming months.
“The situation is serious and winter will come,” Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister, said at a news conference in Berlin. The third step of the plan would allow the government to begin rationing gas.
“Even if you don’t feel it yet, we are in a gas crisis,” he said. “Gas is now a scarce commodity. Prices are already high and we need to be prepared for further increases. This will impact industrial production and become a major burden for many consumers.”
Mr Habeck called Gazprom’s austerity measures a deliberate economic attack by Mr Putin.
“Clearly Putin’s strategy,” he said, “is to create uncertainty, drive prices up and divide us as a society.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Bakhmut, Ukraine, and Michael Levenson From New York. Reporting contributed by Natalia Yermak from Bakhmut, Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Anton Trojanovskic and Melissa Eddie from Berlin, John Ismay from Washington, Marc Santora from Warsaw and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.