European Union leaders on Thursday granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in a strong show of support against the Russian invasion as the United States said it would send Kiev more precision missile systems.
The West’s latest efforts to rally behind Ukraine came as Russia approached key cities in the country’s beleaguered east, sparking growing global concerns over restrictions on gas and grain exports.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the EU decision on his country and Moldova as “a unique and historic moment”, although the two former Soviet republics have a long way to go before joining the bloc and the benefits of free movement and a common market connect.
“Ukraine’s future lies within the EU,” said Zelensky, who had been working on the phones for weeks.
“We will win, rebuild, enter the EU and then we will rest. Or probably we will not rest.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said the EU leaders’ decision sent a “very strong signal” to Russia that Europeans support Ukraine’s pro-Western aspirations.
President Vladimir Putin had stated that Ukraine is part of the Moscow sphere and insisted he acted on attempts to join the country in NATO, the Western alliance that comes with security guarantees.
European powers had distanced themselves from US support for Ukraine’s NATO aspirations before the invasion, and EU membership is certainly years away.
Ukraine and Moldova will have to engage in lengthy negotiations and the European Union has set out steps that Kiev should take before that, including strengthening the rule of law and fighting corruption.
– Weapons to fight Russian gains –
The White House announced it would send another $450 million in fresh weapons to Ukraine, including new High Mobility Artillery Rocket systems, which topped Kiev’s wish list.
The so-called Himars system can launch multiple precision missiles simultaneously at a longer range.
The first four units have already been delivered, with Ukrainian soldiers trained to operate the equipment, after President Joe Biden’s administration said Kiev had assured Kiev it would not fire on Russia.
Ukraine’s needs become increasingly urgent as Russia — which did not take Kiev immediately after the invasion on February 24 — advances in the east and tightens its grip on strategically important Severodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk across the Donets River.
By taking the cities, Moscow would gain control of all of Lugansk, allowing Russia to penetrate further into the Donbas region and possibly further west.
Ukraine acknowledged Thursday that it had lost control of two areas from which it defended the cities, while Russian forces are now closer to industrial hubs.
The British Ministry of Defense said some Ukrainian units would probably have to withdraw “to avoid being surrounded”.
“Russia’s improved performance in this sector is likely the result of recent unit reinforcements and heavy concentration of fire,” it said in its latest intelligence update.
A representative of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine told AFP that the resistance of Ukrainian troops trying to defend Lysychansk and Severodonetsk was “pointless and pointless”.
“At the pace that our soldiers are pulling, very soon the entire territory of the Lugansk People’s Republic will be liberated,” said Andrei Marochko, a spokesman for the Lugansk military.
The Russian army also said on Thursday that its bombing campaign in the southern city of Mykolaiv destroyed 49 fuel storage tanks and three tank repair depots, after several Ukrainian troops were killed on Wednesday.
– ‘Only grannies left’ –
The northeastern city of Kharkov near the Russian border was nearly empty on Wednesday, AFP reporters said, a day after shelling by Moscow’s forces killed five people there.
“Last night the building next to mine collapsed from the bombing while I was sleeping,” said Leyla Shoydhry, a young woman in a park near the opera house.
Roman Pohuliay, a 19-year-old in a pink sweatshirt, said most residents had fled the city.
“Only the grannies are left,” he said.
In the central city of Zaporizhzhya, women were training to use Kalashnikov assault rifles in urban combat as Russian forces approached.
“If you can do something, it’s not that scary to take a machine gun in your hands,” said Ulyana Kiyashko, 29, after moving through a makeshift combat zone in a basement.
– ‘Arming’ grain and gas –
Western officials have also accused Russia of arming its main exports of gas and grain from Ukraine, contributing to global inflation and increasing world hunger.
“It is very clear that this grain crisis is urgent, that it must be resolved within the next month,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on a visit to Turkey.
“Otherwise, we could see devastating consequences,” she said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged African countries to pressure Russia for a safe route for grain.
“African capitals are important and they affect Russia’s position,” he told African journalists.
A US official warned of new retaliation against Russia at the Group of Seven summit attended by Biden in Germany from Sunday.
Germany stepped up an emergency gas plan to its second alert level, just one short of the maximum that could be rationed in Europe’s largest economy after Russia cut its supplies.
“Gas is now a scarce commodity,” Commerce Secretary Robert Habeck told reporters, urging households to cut back on its use. The demand for gas is lower in summer, but shortages can cause heat shortages in winter.
France aims to have its gas storage reserves at full capacity by early autumn and will build a new floating methane terminal to get more energy by sea, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said.
A Kremlin spokesman reiterated his claim that the supply constraints were due to maintenance and that the necessary equipment had not arrived from abroad.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)