Clear Signal on Ukraine’s EU Candidate Status Bid Next Week, Says Chief Ursula Von Der Leyen

The European Commission will provide a clear signal next week on Ukraine’s EU candidate status bid, its chief Ursula von der Leyen said Saturday, as fighting raged in the east and south of the country.

Making a surprise visit to Kyiv, von der Leyen said talks she held with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “will enable us to finalise our assessment by the end of next week” — the first time the bloc has publicly given a timing. Zelenskyy has been pressing for rapid admission into the European Union as a way of reducing Ukraine’s geopolitical vulnerability, which was brutally exposed by Russia’s February 24 invasion.

But officials and leaders in the bloc caution that, even with candidacy status, actual EU membership could take years or even decades. Von der Leyen, appearing alongside Zelenskyy during her second visit to Kyiv since the war began, did not hold out any promises, noting further reforms were needed.

The Ukrainian president warned it was a “decisive time” for his country and the EU. “Russia wants to ruin the European unity, wants to leave Europe divided and wants to leave it weak. The entire Europe is a target for Russia. Ukraine is only the first stage in this aggression, in these plans,” he said.

Despite reservations among some member states, EU leaders are expected to approve Ukraine’s candidate status at a summit on June 23-24, though with stern conditions attached.

Crisis and famine

The European Union and the United States have strongly backed Ukraine, sending weapons and cash to help it see off Russian forces, and punishing Moscow with unprecedented economic sanctions.

Zelenskyy has urged them on during a diplomatic offensive that has seen him regularly appear via video link at various parliaments and summits around the world. Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore on Saturday, he highlighted the dangers of a global food crisis posed by Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

He warned of “an acute and severe food crisis and famine”, adding that the “shortage of foodstuffs will inexorably lead to political chaos” — all of it “the direct consequence of the acts of the Russian state”.

Before the war, Russia and Ukraine produced 30 per cent of the global wheat supply, but grain is stuck in Ukraine’s ports — while Western sanctions on Moscow have disrupted exports from Russia. Speaking to delegates including Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and China’s defence minister, Zelenskyy urged international pressure to end the blockade.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart held talks this week in Ankara on securing safe passage for Ukrainian grain exports, but the discussions made little headway.

‘Devastate every city’

After withdrawing from the capital Kyiv, Russian forces have concentrated their firepower on the eastern Donbas region and the south. They continued their bombardment of towns and villages around Kharkiv and in the Donbas regions of Lugansk and Donetsk overnight to Saturday, Zelenskyy’s office said.

“Russia wants to devastate every city in the Donbas, every single one, without exaggeration,” the president said in his nightly address Friday.

Moscow has particularly focused on the key eastern industrial city of Severodonetsk, which Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said Saturday was “ruined” by Russian forces.

“This is their tactics — people are not needed, the infrastructure is not needed, houses are not needed, everything should be simply ruined,” he said in an interview posted on his Telegram channel. He declined to estimate the number of civilian victims, but said he expected the figure would be “enormous and terrible”.

In the Mykolaiv region near the front line in the south, regional governor Vitaliy Kim stressed the urgent need for international military assistance.

“Russia’s army is more powerful, they have a lot of artillery and ammo. For now, this is a war of artillery… and we are out of ammo,” he said. For residents living in Mykolaiv, every day brings a brush with death.

Igor Karputov, 31, recalled how his neighbourhood was hit last week, shaking his apartment, and he helped a bleeding man while he waited for an ambulance.

“Then I went to another place which had been hit, where emergency services were already taking care of someone,” he told AFP. “But they were dead. And the one I had helped died in an ambulance.”

Russian passports issued

In areas now controlled by its forces, Moscow has sought to impose its authority. Authorities in the occupied city of Kherson in southern Ukraine handed out Russian passports to local residents for the first time on Saturday, news agencies reported.

Russia’s TASS agency said 23 Kherson residents received a Russian passport at a ceremony through a “simplified procedure” facilitated by a decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in May.

Ukraine has denounced the move as a “flagrant violation” of its territorial integrity, saying Putin’s decree was “legally void”. It follows the introduction last month in the Kherson region of the Russian ruble as an official currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.

(Written by Benoit Finck with Blaise Gauquelin in Mykolaiv)

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