KYIV, Ukraine ( Associated Press) – The European Union’s decision to make Ukraine a candidate for EU membership gave war-weary Ukrainians a moral boost and hopes for a safer future on Friday as the country’s army ordered its fighters to retreat from a key city in the eastern Donbas region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the decision by EU leaders as a confirmation of his nation’s four-month struggle against Russia’s aggression and said he was determined to ensure that Ukraine retains the ability to decide whether to Europe belongs to or under Moscow’s influence.
READ MORE: European Union puts Ukraine on a path to EU membership
“This war started just when Ukraine declared its right to freedom. To his choice of his future. We saw it in the European Union, “Zelenskyy told the nation in a televised speech late Thursday. “That’s why this EU decision is so important, motivating us and showing it all is not just necessary by us.”
Others recalled the 2014 revolution that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, caused in part by his decision not to conclude an association agreement with the EU. Russian President Vladimir Putin opposed the agreement, just as he had demanded before NATO sent troops to Ukraine on February 24 that NATO never accept Ukraine as an ally.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an opposition leader who became prime minister after the revolution, expressed joy over the country’s candidate status, but also “bitterness” over the “terrible price Ukraine is paying for the desire to create a free, independent European state” be.”
“Thank you to our soldiers – they won this decision,” Yatsenyuk tweeted. “Ukraine is a wonderful country that will inevitably become a member of the EU and, just as inevitably, a member of NATO.”
Ukraine applied for membership less than a week after Russia invaded the country and has to go through a complicated process of many months to be eligible to join the 27-nation bloc.
The EU has also granted candidate status to the small nation of Moldova, another former Soviet republic bordering Ukraine and also having territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the European Union – and its potential enlargement – does not pose a “threat or risk” to Russia because the bloc is not a military alliance like NATO. But he said the Kremlin thinks the EU’s position and prospects have become more anti-Russian.
“We are well aware that the EU has developed over the past few years and has acquired an aggressive ideological background, first of all a Russophobic background,” Lavrov said.
In Pokrovsk, a small town near the front line of the four-month-old war in eastern Ukraine, few residents wanted to discuss the EU candidate as they hurried to collect their daily supplies. Some of those who shared their thoughts said the decision would send a strong message to the Russians trying to conquer cities and towns a few kilometers further.
“The next stop is NATO. There is no way back now. I was born during the USSR, but there is no return (to it), ”said Valerii Terentyev, a resident of Pokrovsk. “Ukraine wanted another thing, and in my opinion it’s the right thing to do.”
The chairman of Ukraine’s parliament has said that a path to EU membership will remind the country’s soldiers that their struggle, which has won international admiration, is worth suffering.
“This is a powerful political message. It will be heard by soldiers in the trenches, every family forced to flee the war abroad, all helping to bring our victory closer. But it will also be heard in the bunker, “said Ruslan Stefanchuk.
Encouragement aside, the reality remains that the European Union is sometimes long on words of solidarity and support, but short on the kind of joint action that can deter outside threats, even though a treaty obliges EU countries to help a fellow member facing armed aggression.
To gain EU membership, countries must meet a detailed set of economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles. The EU’s executive arm has indicated that Ukraine will also have to fight entrenched corruption and adopt other government reforms.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the EU’s embrace of Ukraine was “an important symbolic signal, but it is the beginning of the beginning.”
Some Ukrainians understand that their country still has a lot to do to meet the strict membership criteria.
“We still have to grow,” said Yevhen Zaitsev, another Pokrovsk resident. “There is a lot of corruption. There are many lies. ”
READ MORE: “Everything that can burn is on fire” as Russia bombs eastern Ukraine
While the EU has accelerated its consideration of Ukraine’s application for membership, the ongoing war could hamper the country’s ability to meet the admission criteria. Russian forces have been advancing slowly in recent weeks in their offensive to conquer the Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatists have controlled much of the territory for eight years.
Ukrainian forces have been ordered to withdraw from the besieged city of Sievierodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian-controlled areas of Luhansk province, to prevent them from being completely surrounded.
The city faced relentless Russian bombing while Ukrainian troops fought the Russians in house-to-house fighting before retreating to a large chemical factory on the outskirts of the city.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the withdrawal order had been issued to prevent siege by Russian forces advancing around Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk in recent days.
Ebel reported from Pokrovsk, Ukraine.