Ukrainians applaud country’s EU candidacy amid war turmoil

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – The European Union’s decision to nominate Ukraine for EU membership gave war-weary Ukrainians a morale boost and hope for a safer future as the country’s military ordered its fighters to withdraw. draw from an important city in the eastern Donbas region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised the decision of EU leaders as justifying his country’s four-month struggle against Russian aggression and said he was determined to ensure Ukraine retained the ability to decide whether it belonged in Europe or under the influence of Moscow.

“This war started just when Ukraine declared its right to liberty. At his choice of his future. We saw it in the European Union,” Zelenskyy told the nation in a televised address late Thursday. “That is why this EU decision is so important, it motivates us and shows that this is not only necessary for us.”

Others recalled the 2014 revolution that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, partly caused by his decision not to conclude an association agreement with the EU. Russian President Vladimir Putin opposed that agreement, just as he demanded before sending troops to Ukraine on February 24 that NATO would never accept Ukraine as an alliance member.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an opposition leader who became prime minister after the revolution, expressed joy at the country’s candidate status, but also “bitterness” at the “terrible price Ukraine pays for its desire to create a free, independent European state.” to be”.

“Thanks to our soldiers – they won this decision,” Yatsenyuk tweeted. “Ukraine is a great country that will inevitably join the EU and, just as inevitably, join NATO.”

Ukraine applied for membership less than a week after Russia invaded the country and must undergo a complex process lasting many months to qualify to join the 27-nation bloc.

The EU has also granted candidate status to the small country of Moldova, another former Soviet republic bordering Ukraine and also controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the European Union — and its potential expansion — poses no “threat or risk” to Russia because the bloc is not a military alliance like NATO. But he said the Kremlin thinks the EU’s attitude and vision have become more anti-Russian.

“We are well aware that in recent years the EU has evolved and acquired an aggressive ideological background, primarily a Russophobic background,” Lavrov said.

In Pokrovsk, a small town close to the four-month-old war front in eastern Ukraine, few residents wanted to discuss the EU candidacy as they rushed to collect their daily aid funds. Some of those who shared their thoughts said the decision would send a strong signal to the Russians trying to capture towns and villages a few miles away.

“The next stop is NATO. There’s no going back now. I was born during the USSR, but there is no return (to),” said Pokrovsk resident Valerii Terentyev. “Ukraine wanted something different, and I think that’s the right thing to do.”

The speaker of the Ukrainian parliament said a road to EU membership would remind the country’s soldiers that their battle, which has won international admiration, is worth it.

“This is a strong political message. It will be heard by soldiers in the trenches, every family forced to flee the war abroad, everyone who helps bring our victory closer. But it will also be heard in the bunker,” said Ruslan Stefanchuk.

Aside from the encouragement, the reality remains that the European Union is sometimes long with words of solidarity and support, but falls short of the kind of concerted action that could deter outside threats, even though a treaty obliges EU countries to is confronted with armed aggression.

To gain EU membership, countries must fulfill a number of detailed economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles. The EU executive has indicated that Ukraine will also need to curb entrenched corruption and implement other government reforms.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the EU’s embrace of Ukraine was “an important symbolic signal, but it is the beginning of the beginning”.

Some Ukrainians understood that their country still has a lot to do to meet the strict membership criteria.

“We still have to grow,” said Yevhen Zaitsev, another Pokrovsk resident. “There is a lot of corruption. There are many lies.”

As the EU accelerated consideration of Ukraine’s membership application, the ongoing war could complicate the country’s ability to meet the eligibility criteria. Russian forces have advanced slowly in recent weeks in their offensive to take the Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatists have controlled much of the area for eight years.

Ukrainian troops were ordered to withdraw from the besieged city of Sievierodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian-occupied areas of Luhansk province, to avoid being completely surrounded.

The city has faced relentless Russian bombing as Ukrainian troops fought the Russians in door-to-door battles before retreating to a massive chemical plant on the outskirts of the city.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the withdrawal order was issued to avoid encirclement by Russian forces that have made gains in recent days around Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk.

Ebel reported from Pokrovsk, Ukraine.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine