EU backs Ukraine's membership bid to 'live the European dream'

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.

Read more: Russian ‘motivation’ to fight the Ukraine war

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.

"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," tweeted President Voldymyr Zelenskiy.

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: "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.

Also read: Pandemic, Russia-Ukraine war accelerate economic slowdown in India: Experts

Moldovan President Maia Sandu hailed a "strong signal of support for Moldova and our citizens".

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" and said Western intransigence had given Russia no choice but to launch its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

Adding further fuel to the global showdown, Russian media outlets broadcast images of what they said were two Americans captured while fighting for Ukraine. "I am against war," both men said in separate video clips posted on social media.

Post-soviet generation

Joining the EU requires years of administrative reform – there are 35 "chapters of the acquis" setting out standards to meet 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 existing EU members, with per capita output around half that of the current poorest, Bulgaria.

All three have recent histories of volatile politics, organised crime and 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 representing a generation that came of age outside the Soviet Union.

The latest foreign dignitary to visit Kyiv was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who offered training for Ukrainian troops. read more

"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 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 heaviest 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.

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.

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