Ukraine's EU candidacy will strengthen Europe as Russia threatens freedom, says Zelensky

The path to EU membership will be a huge boost for morale in Ukraine but will be a long road and could take years. PHOTO: REUTERS

KYIV (REUTERS) - President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine's formal candidature to join the European Union was a big step towards strengthening Europe at a time when Russia was testing its freedom and unity.

Friday (June 24) marks four months since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent forces across the border into Ukraine sparking the biggest conflict in Europe since World War Two, killing thousands, uprooting millions and reducing cities to rubble.

It has also sparked a global energy and food crisis.

After failing to gain a quick victory by capturing Kyiv, Putin's forces are now focused on taking control of eastern Ukraine in what has become a war of attrition, with no end in sight, and the risk that the conflict could widen in Europe.

Mr Zelensky told EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday that their decision to accept Kyiv's candidacy was among the most important for Ukraine since it broke from the Soviet Union 31 years ago.

"But this decision is not just being made for the benefit of Ukraine. It is the biggest step towards strengthening Europe that could have been made right now, in our time, and when the Russian war is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity," he said.

European Council chief Charles Michel tweeted after the decision: "A historic moment", adding "Our future is together."

The approval of Kyiv's EU candidacy will anger Russia, which has been concerned with Ukraine's closer ties with the West.

Moscow launched its "special military operation" on Feb 24 to ensure security on its borders. Kyiv and the West say Putin launched an unprovoked invasion.

Moldova also became an official EU candidate, signalling the bloc's intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.

The path to EU membership will be a huge boost for morale in Ukraine but will be a long road and could take years.

Mr Zelensky has vowed not to rest until Russia's defeat and full membership had been secured.

"We can defeat the enemy, rebuild Ukraine, join the EU, and then we can rest," he said in a video released by his office.

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

Russian assaults

Russian assaults to gain control of Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, continued as Moscow seeks to link it with the already occupied Crimea to the south, Ukraine’s military general staff said. Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Russian forces were shelling civilian infrastructure in several towns and cities, Ukraine’s general staff said. Moscow denies it targets civilians, but Kyiv and the West have accused Russian forces of war crimes against civilians.

The key objective for Russian forces were the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which sit on opposite banks of the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk province.

Ukrainian troops will “have to be withdrawn” from the mostly Russian-occupied Sievierodonetsk, the regional governor said on Friday.

The battle for Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, its industrial heartland, is most critical in the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which sit on opposite banks of the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk province.

“Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on television.

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

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

Luhansk governor Haidai said that all Lysychansk was within reach of Russian fire and retreating to new positions will help avoid being trapped.

Russian-backed separatist forces said there was fierce fighting underway around Ukrainian positions in Hirske, which lies on the western side of the main north-south road to Lysychansk, and Zolote, another settlement to the south.

Ukrainian forces were defending Sievierodonetsk and nearby Zolote and Vovchoyrovka, Mr Haidai said, but Russian troops had captured Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka to the south. Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk.

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

Russian forces were blocking Ukrainian sea communications in the northwest part of the Black Sea and were seeking to resume the offensive in the Mykolaviv area, the general staff added.

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

Authorities in the small town of Derhachi, to the northwest of Kharkiv, said early on Friday that heavy Russian shelling had knocked out most of the electrical and natural gas supply.

Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, is the country's second-biggest city.

Mr Zelensky has urged Ukraine's allies to speed up shipments of heavy weapons to match Russia on the battlefield.

Ukrainian defence 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.

The United States will provide an additional US$450 million (S$625 million) in security assistance to Ukraine, including more long-range rocket systems, US officials said on Thursday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain was willing to assist with demining operations off Ukraine's southern coast and was considering offering insurance to ships to move millions of tonnes of grain stuck in the country.

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