Ukraine Takes Tentative Step Towards EU Membership as Donbass Battles Reach ‘Fearsome Climax’

KYIV—Ukraine will be accepted as a candidate to join the European Union on Thursday, a move that will boost the country’s morale as the battle with Russian troops for two cities in the east reached what one official called a “fierce climax.”

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 signifies a huge geopolitical shift.

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 views as its sphere of influence.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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,” Zelenskyy said in a video address on Thursday.

Moscow’s massive air and artillery attacks are aimed at destroying the entire Donbass region, he said.

The war of attrition in the Donbass—Ukraine’s industrial heartland—is most critical in the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which straddle the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk province.

The battle there is “entering a sort of fearsome climax,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy.

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

Hundreds of civilians are said to be 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 and trapped. But Gaidai told Ukrainian Television on Wednesday that Russian forces did not have full control of Sievierodonetsk.

Gaidai said all Lysychansk was within reach of Russian fire.

“In order to avoid encirclement, our command could order that the troops retreat to new positions. There may be a regrouping after last night,” he said.

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Ukrainian service members patrol an area in the city of Sievierodonetsk, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, Ukraine, on June 20, 2022. (Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters)

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

Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the report.

Britain’s defense ministry said some Ukrainian units had withdrawn, probably to avoid being encircled.

“Russian forces are putting the Lysychansk-Sievierodonetsk pocket under increasing pressure with this creeping advance … however, its efforts to achieve a deeper encirclement to take western Donetsk Oblast remain stalled,” the ministry said on Twitter.

Zelenskyy said he had spoken to 11 EU leaders on Wednesday about Ukraine’s candidacy and will make more calls on Thursday.

European Union chief executive Ursula von der Leyen, speaking ahead of the two-day EU summit in Brussels, said: “History is on the march.”

She added: “I am not just talking about Putin’s war of aggression. I am talking about the wind of change that once again blows across our continent.”

As well as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are also seeking to 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.

By Pavel Polityuk and Vitalii Hnidyi