(CN) — Ukraine was a step closer Friday to becoming a member of the European Union but that political win after four full months of war was offset by new territorial losses to Russian forces in the East.
EU leaders agreed on Thursday to open up a route for Ukraine and neighboring Moldova to join the 27-member union. They also called for Georgia, another Black Sea country fearful of Russian aggression, to be given a similar route into the EU in the future.
Meeting in Brussels, the European Council, a body made up of the political leaders of each member state, voted to give so-called “candidate status” to both countries.
“This is a very defining moment and a very good day for Europe today,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president.
But it is expected to take years for Ukraine and Moldova to become full-fledged EU members because each country will need to adopt deep reforms in aligning themselves with EU laws, rules and standards, and this could prove problematic. Also, Ukraine's future is in doubt as Russia seeks to annex its territories through military might.
There are questions about Ukraine being rife with corruption and carrying out undemocratic actions. For example, just as Ukraine was being offered EU membership candidacy, the main opposition party in Ukraine was formally banned by a court of appeal and its assets seized. The Opposition Platform-For Life party was accused of being pro-Russian, though critics see banning it and several other opposition parties as deeply undemocratic.
The road to EU membership could even prove illusory. Turkey, for example, was given candidate status in 1999 amid high hopes, but since then talks between the EU and Ankara about membership have fallen apart, mostly due to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authoritarian rule.
Still, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed Thursday's decision as a pivotal moment for his war-ravaged country's future.
“Candidate status is not just a new step. This is a new summit,” Zelenskyy said in a statement. “Not a new paragraph, not a new page or even a new section. This is a new volume in the history of Ukraine's European integration, which we started writing today.”
He added: “And as of today, this book has no other options but one: Ukraine will become a member of the EU in the future. As of today, this is fixed at the official level.”
There is a lot of symbolism in the EU opening the door to Ukraine. In many ways, the war in Ukraine is rooted in a clash inside the country between those segments pushing to be closer to the West and those resisting such a direction.
This internal clash came to a head in 2013 and 2014 when then-President Viktor Yanukovych ditched an economic deal with the EU and instead turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a loan bailout and to develop closer ties.
Many in Ukraine saw his move as a betrayal and took to the streets in what became the so-called “Maidan Revolution,” a series of protests and violent events that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych, the installation of a pro-Western government in Kyiv, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the eruption of war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region between Kremlin-backed separatists and Ukraine's military.
More than eight years later, this clash has evolved into a full-scale war that poses the danger of escalating into a major war between Russia and NATO.
Friday marked exactly four months since Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 following months of a troop buildup on the borders. In defending his invasion, Putin said Russia could not allow ethnic Russians in Ukraine suffer under an anti-Russian government in Kyiv and that Russia was forced to halt NATO's expansion into Ukraine.
Ukraine's political gain of receiving EU candidate status, though, was overshadowed with new reports of Russian advances in eastern Ukraine.
On Friday, Ukraine said its troops were retreating from the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, an industrial hub in the Luhansk region, after days of intense fighting there.
But more worrying for Kyiv were reports of fresh advances by Russian forces that could potentially cut off thousands of Ukrainian soldiers in areas near Sievierodonetsk.
Also, Russian forces began a siege of Lysychansk, a twin city across the Siverskyi Donets River from Sievierodonetsk. Together, the two cities had a population of more than 200,000 people before the war.
Ukraine is hoping that the flow of powerful Western weapons will turn the tide of the war and enable it to reclaim territories it has lost.
On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden announced a new $450 million shipment of weapons, including four new medium-distance rocket launchers.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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