LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine (AP) — The European Union's executive arm recommended putting Ukraine on a path to membership Friday, a symbolic boost for a country fending off a Russian onslaught that is taking civilian lives, flattening cities and threatening its very survival.
The possibility of membership in a union created to safeguard peace on the continent and that stands as a model for the rule of law and prosperity fulfills a wish of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the many Western-looking citizens.
In another show of solidarity, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Kyiv to meet Zelenskyy, his second trip to the country since the war began.
The latest embrace of Ukraine by its European allies also marks another setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched his war nearly four months ago, hoping to pull his ex-Soviet neighbor away from the West and back into Russia's sphere of influence.
At Russia's showpiece economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday, Putin reprised his usual defense of Russia's war in Ukraine, falsely claiming that it was an act of self-defense. He has insisted before that his invasion was necessary to protect people in parts of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed rebels and to ensure Russia's own security.
The European Commission's recommendation that Ukraine become a candidate for membership will be discussed by leaders of the 27-nation bloc during a summit next week in Brussels. The war has increased pressure on EU governments to fast-track Ukraine's candidate status. But the process is expected to take years, and EU members remain divided over how quickly and fully to open their arms to new members.
Support for Ukraine from Western countries — both political and military — has been key to its surprising success in the face of larger and better equipped Russian forces. Zelenskyy has also clamored for more immediate support in the form of more and better weapons to turn the tide in the country's eastern Donbas region.
Russia pressed its offensive there Friday, leaving desperate residents struggling to make sense of what the future holds for them.
"We are old people, we do not have a place to go. Where will I go?" asked Vira Miedientseva, one of the elderly residents grappling with the aftermath of an attack Thursday in Lysychansk, which lies just across the river from Sievierodonetsk, where a key battle is raging.
In other developments:
— The Ukrainian navy claimed Friday that it destroyed a Russian boat carrying air defense systems to a strategic island in the Black Sea. In a statement on social media, the navy said that the Vasily Bekh was used to transport ammunition, weapons and personnel to Snake Island, which is vital for protecting sea lanes out of the key port of Odesa.
— A group of volunteers called the "IT Army of Ukraine" took credit for a cyberattack that delayed Putin's speech in St. Petersburg. The group was convened by Ukraine after the invasion to launch cyberattacks against Russian targets. It said that on Friday it carried out a distributed denial-of-service attack, which leverages networks of zombie computers to flood websites with junk traffic, rendering them unreachable.
— The war's disruption to exports of grain and other crops from Ukraine that feed the world has captured global attention and sent bread prices soaring across the world. But the production of other, more niche foodstuffs has also been impacted, including for a Ukrainian snail farmer.
— The organizer of the Eurovision Song Contest said Friday that it will start talks with the BBC on possibly holding next year's event in the U.K. after concluding that it can't be held in Ukraine. Last month, Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the 2022 contest, buoying Ukrainian spirits. The event is traditionally staged by the previous year's winner.
After a series of setbacks early in the war, including the failure to seize Ukraine's capital, Russian forces have switched their focus to the Donbas.
The Ukrainian military said Friday that Moscow's troops kept up relentless attacks on both Sloviansk and Sievierodonetsk, two key cities that have been the focus on recent fighting. The military claimed that Ukrainian forces pushed Russian fighters out of the village of Bohorodychne, north of Sloviansk.
Russia and its allies say they have taken about half of Donetsk and nearly all of Luhansk — the two regions that make up the Donbas. Sievierodonetsk and surrounding villages are in the last pocket of Luhansk region still in Ukrainian hands.
"The Russians are pouring fire on the city," said Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai. "It's getting harder and harder for us to fight in Sievierodonetsk, because the Russians outnumber us in artillery and manpower, and it's very difficult for us to resist this barrage of fire."
The constant shelling made it impossible for 568 people, including 38 children, sheltering in the Azot chemical plant in the city to escape, he said.
Russian forces have destroyed all three bridges leading out of the city, but Haidai said it still had not been fully blocked off.
The Moscow envoy for Russia-backed separatists who control much of the territory around Sievierodonetsk said an evacuation from the Azot plant could take place, under certain conditions.
Writing on social media on Friday, Rodion Miroshnik of the self-proclaimed Luhansk's People's Republic said Russian troops and separatists are "ready to consider options for opening a humanitarian corridor for the exit of civilians, but subject to strict adherence to the cease-fire."
Earlier this week, Miroshnik accused Kyiv's troops of trying to disrupt the evacuation of civilians from Azot, a claim vigorously denied by Ukrainian officials.
By DAVID KEYTON, reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, and EFREM LUKATSKY, Associated Press
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.