‘This is a victory’: smiling Zelenskyy promises EU membership while battles rage

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks online at the EU summit on 23 June 2022. [Council newsroom]

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday (23 June) declared the EU’s move to accept Ukraine as a candidate for accession as a victory and promised not to rest until Russia’s defeat and full membership had been secured.

European Union leaders formally accepted Ukraine as a candidate to join the 27-nation bloc, a bold geopolitical move hailed by Ukraine and the EU itself as an historic moment.

“This is a victory,” a smiling Zelenskyy said in a brief video posted to his Instagram channel, noting Ukraine had waited 30 years for this moment.

“We can defeat the enemy, rebuild Ukraine, join the EU, and then we can rest,” he said in a low voice.

“Or perhaps we won’t rest at all – our children would take offence. But without any doubt, we will win.”

Andriy Yermak, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, said Kyiv would quickly implement the plan needed for accession talks to begin.

“Ukraine will be in the EU,” he tweeted.

Speaking online, Zelenskyy told EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday that their decision to accept Kyiv’s candidacy was among the most important for Ukraine since it broke from the Soviet Union 31 years ago.

“But this decision is not just being made for the benefit of Ukraine. It is the biggest step towards strengthening Europe that could have been made right now, in our time, and when the Russian war is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity,” Zelenskyy said.

European Council chief Charles Michel tweeted after the decision: “A historic moment”, adding “Our future is together.”

The approval of Kyiv’s EU candidacy will anger Russia, which has been concerned with Ukraine’s closer ties with the West.

The path to EU membership will be a huge boost for morale in Ukraine but will be a long road and could take years.

Friday marks four months since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent forces across the border into Ukraine sparking the biggest conflict in Europe since World War Two, killing thousands, uprooting millions and reducing cities to rubble.

After failing to gain a quick victory by capturing Kyiv, Putin’s forces are now focused on taking control of eastern Ukraine in what has become a war of attrition, with no end in sight, and the risk that the conflict could widen in Europe.

It has also sparked a global energy and food crisis, an issue to be debated on the second day of the EU summit on Friday.

Russian assaults

The battle for Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, its industrial heartland, is most critical in the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which sit on opposite banks of the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk province.

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

Russian forces were trying to encircle Ukrainian troops defending Lysychansk, senior Ukrainian defence official Oleksiy Gromov said in a briefing on Thursday.

Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said that all Lysychansk was within reach of Russian fire and that Ukrainian troops there might retreat to new positions to avoid being trapped.

Russian-backed separatist forces said there was fierce fighting underway around Ukrainian positions in Hirske, which lies on the western side of the main north-south road to Lysychansk, and Zolote, another settlement to the south.

Ukrainian forces were defending Severodonetsk and nearby Zolote and Vovchoyrovka, Gaidai said, but Russian troops had captured Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka to the south. Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk.

On the southern front, Russian forces struck Ukrainian army fuel tanks and military equipment near Mykolaiv with high-precision weapons, Russia’s defence ministry said, quoted by the Interfax news agency.

A river port and ship-building centre just off the Black Sea, Mykolaiv has been a bastion against Russian efforts to push West towards Ukraine’s main port city of Odesa.

Authorities in the small town of Derhachi, to the northwest of Kharkiv, said early on Friday that heavy Russian shelling had knocked out most of the electrical and natural gas supply.

Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, is the country’s second-biggest city.

Zelenskyy has urged Ukraine’s allies to speed up shipments of heavy weapons to match Russia on the battlefield.

Ukrainian defence minister said HIMARS multiple rocket systems had arrived from the United States. With a range of 70 km, the systems can challenge the Russian artillery batteries that have bludgeoned Ukrainian cities from afar.

The United States will provide an additional $450 million in security assistance to Ukraine, including more long-range rocket systems, US officials said on Thursday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain was willing to assist with demining operations off Ukraine’s southern coast and was considering offering insurance to ships to move millions of tonnes of grain stuck in the country.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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