Ukraine moves toward EU membership as Russia tightens grip on Donbas

The move will kick-start the EU's most ambitious expansion since welcoming Eastern European states after the Cold War.

 EUROPEAN UNION flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels. (photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
EUROPEAN UNION flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels.
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)

Ukraine is set to be accepted as a candidate to join the European Union on Thursday, a move that boosts the country's morale as Russian assaults wear down the defenders of two cities in the eastern Donbas region.

Although the approval of the Kyiv government's application by EU leaders meeting in Brussels is just the start of what will be a years-long process, it marks a huge geopolitical shift and will anger Russia as it struggles to impose its will on Ukraine.

The expected green light "is a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, and also other countries from the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to the Russian spheres of influence," Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, told Reuters.

Friday will mark four months since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops across the border in what he calls a "special military operation" partly necessitated by Western encroachment into what Russia considers its sphere of influence.

The conflict, which the West sees as an unjustified war of aggression by Russia, has killed thousands, displaced millions and destroyed cities as well as having ramifications across much of the world as food and energy exports have been curtailed.

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR/FILE PHOTO)European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR/FILE PHOTO)

Russia has focused its campaign on southern and eastern Ukraine after its advance on the capital Kyiv in the early stages of the conflict was thwarted by Ukrainian resistance.

The war of attrition in the Donbas - Ukraine's industrial heartland - is most critical in the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which sit on opposite sides of the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk province.

The battle there is "entering a sort of fearsome climax," said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky.

HOT SUMMER

 Zelensky delivers a video address to the TIME100 Gala 2022 crowd. (credit: SCREENSHOT VIA YOUTUBE) Zelensky delivers a video address to the TIME100 Gala 2022 crowd. (credit: SCREENSHOT VIA YOUTUBE)

"We must free our land and achieve victory, but more quickly, a lot more quickly."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Russian forces were trying to encircle Ukrainian troops defending Lysychansk, senior Ukrainian defense official Oleksiy Gromov said in a briefing on Thursday.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said separately that all Lysychansk was within reach of Russian fire and the Ukrainian troops there might retreat to new positions to avoid being trapped.

Ukrainian forces were defending Sievierodonetsk and the nearby settlements of Zolote and Vovchoyrovka, Gaidai said, but Russian troops had captured Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka to the south.

Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk while Ukraine and Russia dispute who controls the bombed-out city.

Moscow says Ukrainian forces in the city are surrounded. But Gaidai said on Wednesday the Russians did not yet have full control of Sievierodonetsk.

TASS news agency quoted Russian-backed separatists as saying Lysychansk was now surrounded and cut off from supplies after a road connecting the city to the town of Sieviersk was taken.

Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the report.

On the southern front, Russian forces struck Ukrainian army fuel tanks and military equipment near Mykolaiv with high-precision weapons, Russia's defense ministry said, quoted by the Interfax news agency.

A river port and ship-building center just off the Black Sea, Mykolaiv has been a bastion against Russian efforts to push West towards Ukraine's main port city of Odesa.

President Volodymyr Zelensky urged his country's allies to speed up shipments of heavy weapons to match Russia on the battlefield.

"We must free our land and achieve victory, but more quickly, a lot more quickly," he said in a video address early on Thursday.

Later, Ukrainian defense minister said HIMARS multiple rocket systems had arrived from the United States. With a range of 70 km, the systems can challenge the Russian artillery batteries that have bludgeoned Ukrainian cities from afar.

"Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them," Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted.

SHIELD FOR THE EU

As well as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are also seeking to the join the EU in what would be its most ambitious expansion since welcoming Eastern European states after the Cold War.

Russia has long opposed closer links between Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic, and Western groupings like the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

Diplomats say it will take Ukraine a decade or more to meet the criteria for joining the EU. But EU leaders say the bloc must make a gesture that recognizes Ukraine's sacrifice.

Ukraine's move to join the EU ranks runs alongside applications by Sweden and Finland to enter NATO in the wake of the Russian invasion - indications that the Kremlin's military actions have backfired in its geopolitical aims.

Anna Melenchuk, a 29-year-old Ukrainian living in Brussels, was among a small crowd of her compatriots rallying outside the building where the EU leaders were meeting.

"It's a very symbolic move on the side of the European Union...it's not only the war against Ukraine, Russia waged this war also against Europe," she told Reuters.

"Ukrainians today are a shield to the European Union, we are protecting Europe from the Russian aggression, so it's so, so important to see this solidarity in action."

Ukraine and Russia: What you need to know right now