The European Union on Thursday formally made Ukraine a candidate for membership in the 27-nation alliance, delivering what could be a major morale boost for Ukrainian troops while also dealing a significant blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s drive to pull Kyiv away from the West.
As the Russian invasion marks its fourth month of fighting this week, EU nations voted unanimously in favor of Ukraine‘s candidacy during a summit in Brussels, though the approval process is likely to take at least several years. Thursday’s move by the EU is the latest unintended consequence of Mr. Putin‘s war in Ukraine, which he hoped would spark the rapid collapse of the Western-backed government in Kyiv and crack EU and NATO solidarity.
Instead, the West has remained mostly unified in its opposition to Russia, despite recent polling that suggests public opinion in some European countries now favors a cease-fire, even at the expense of some Ukrainian concessions to Moscow.
But the conflict also has sparked rapid expansions of the alliances that Mr. Putin hoped to undermine.
NATO, for example, appears poised to welcome Sweden and Finland as new members. Both countries cited the war in Ukraine as the central reason for their push to join the transatlantic alliance. Their candidacies will be at the top of the agenda next week at a major NATO summit in Madrid.
Meanwhile, European leaders, who in the past had put off Ukraine‘s efforts, said that the continent now has a moral obligation to aid Kyiv by bringing the nation into the EU fold.
“It will strengthen Ukraine, it will strengthen Europe. It is a decision for freedom and democracy and puts us on the right side of history,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said of the vote on Ukraine‘s candidacy.
The historic move by the EU came as the Pentagon announced it will send four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Ukraine. It’s the latest in a string of weapons deliveries from America and its allies that have aided Ukrainian forces in what’s become a bloody war of attrition in Ukraine‘s disputed eastern Donbas region.
The $450 million U.S. military aid package announced Thursday also includes 36,000 rounds of ammunition, 18 tactical vehicles to tow artillery, 1,200 grenade launches, 2,000 machine guns, and 18 coastal and riverine patrol boats, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The HIMARS shipments in particular, Ukrainian military leaders said, come at a crucial moment and could give their troops the ability to hold off a much larger Russian army bent on capturing more territory in the bitterly contested Donbas region.
“Thank you to my U.S. colleague and friend Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for these powerful tools! Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them,” said Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, according to Reuters.
HIMARS are just one example of the kinds of weapons systems that Ukrainian officials say they need to effectively fight back against the invaders. The system will give Ukraine the ability to target Russian forces at much greater distances and may be able to slow what’s been a months-long artillery barrage of Ukrainian positions across the Donbas.
Taking a toll
But Russia‘s non-stop assault on the Donbas has already taken its toll. Having already devastated key cities such as Mariupol and Sieverodonetsk, Russian units are making slow but steady progress elsewhere across the region, foreign intelligence officials say.
Since June 19, “Russian forces have highly likely advanced over [three miles] towards the southern approaches of the Donbas city of Lysychansk,” the British Ministry of Defense said in a Twitter post Thursday. “Some Ukrainian units have withdrawn, probably to avoid being encircled. Russia‘s improved performance in this sector is likely the result of recent unit reinforcement and heavy concentration of fire.”
“Russian forces are putting the Lysychansk-Sievierodonetsk pocket under increasing pressure with this creeping advance around the fringes of the built-up area,” the defense ministry continued.
Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, the site of some of the most intense clashes, wrote on the Telegram social media network Thursday that “fighting continues in all directions.”
“Many defensive structures have already been destroyed in the Sievierodonetsk industrial zone, we do not rule out the possibility of retreating to new, more fortified positions,” Mr. Haidai wrote.
Still, British officials added that Russia‘s broader goal of encircling the entire Donbas region and driving out all Ukrainian troops remains stalled.
But Ukrainian forces and civilians are paying an increasingly high price for their stiffer-than-expected resistance.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the EU vote as a “victory,” but also said in a video address Wednesday night that the region is still facing “massive air and artillery strikes.”
“The goal of the occupiers in this direction remains the same — they want to destroy the whole Donbas step by step,” he said, according to English-language media translations of his remarks.
Both the government in Kyiv and its Western allies are bracing themselves for a prolonged war of attrition. While U.S. and NATO weapons, financial aid and military training have been invaluable to the Ukrainian military in the four months since Russia launched its invasion, officials concede that the fight will likely drag on for months or even years.
Such a drawn-out conflict will test the limits of Western solidarity.
“My message has been and still is that since it’s hard to predict, we should be careful about drawing any certain conclusions about how long this war may last. It may last for weeks, months, but also for years,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday. “The political message is that regardless of how long the war lasts, we need to be prepared for the long haul and to be prepared to continue to provide substantial support to Ukraine.”
Mr. Stoltenberg pledged that the alliance will back Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
“Partly because when we started to provide support we actually took on some kind of responsibility, you cannot stop in the middle of that effort, because they are in the middle of a war,” he said.
NATO governments have for the most part remained united in punishing Moscow with economic sanctions and delivering weapons to Ukrainian troops on the front lines. Such unity has surely frustrated Mr. Putin, who seems to have expected NATO to fracture rather than draw the ire of the Kremlin.
“To the extent that one of Putin’s objectives was to try and sow disunity, he has clearly failed,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “Because, as I said, our assessment is that NATO is more strong and united than ever. And we really see this as the high-water mark in transatlantic solidarity in the post-Cold War period.”
But there are signs that public opinion in some of those NATO nations may be shifting. Those shifts will put increased pressure on European governments to find a path to peace.
A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that a plurality of Europeans, about 35%, favor “peace now even at the cost of Ukrainian concessions to Russia.”
The survey was conducted in mid-May and sampled 8,000 Europeans.
About 22% of respondents said that “justice” is the most important consideration and they believe that only Russia‘s clear defeat can bring about peace. Another 23% declined to choose between those two options, while another 20% were classified as swing voters.
— This article is based in part on wire-service reports.