A Ukrainian official overseeing the country’s push to join the European Union said Wednesday that she’s “100%” certain all 27 EU nations will approve Ukraine's EU candidacy during a summit this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed similar optimism, calling it a “crucial moment” for Ukraine. Ukraine’s membership bid is the top order of business for EU leaders meeting in Brussels.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Olha Stefanishyna said the decision could come as soon as Thursday, when the leaders' summit starts.
Stefanishyna said the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark had been skeptical about starting accession talks with Ukraine while it is fighting Russia’s invasion but are now supportive. Asked how confident she was that Ukraine would be accepted as an EU candidate, she said: “The day before the summit starts, I can say 100%.”
The EU’s executive arm threw its weight behind Ukraine’s candidacy last week. Stefanishyna described the European Commission's endorsement as “a game-changer” that had cut the ground from under “the legs of those most hesitating."
EU candidate status, which can be granted only if the existing member countries agree unanimously, is the first step toward membership. It does not provide any security guarantees or an automatic right to join the bloc.
Ukraine's full membership will depend on whether the war-torn country can satisfy political and economic conditions. Potential newcomers need to demonstrate that they meet standards on democratic principles and must absorb 80,000 pages of rules covering everything from trade and immigration to fertilizers and the rule of law.
Stefanishyna said she thinks Ukraine could be an EU member within years, not the decades that some European officials have forecast.
“We’re already very much integrated in the European Union,” she said. “We want to be a strong and competitive member state, so it may take from two to 10 years.”
To help candidates, the bloc can provide technical and financial assistance. European officials have said that Ukraine has already implemented about 70% of the EU rules, norms and standards, but have also pointed to corruption and the need for deep political and economic reforms.
In a virtual talk to Canadian university students on Wednesday, Zelensky described the Brussels summit as “two decisive days” that, like Stefanishyna, he thinks will result in approval of Ukraine's EU candidacy.
“That is a very crucial moment for us. For some people in my team are saying this is like going into the light from the darkness," the Ukrainian president said. "In terms of our army and society, this is a big motivator, a big motivation factor for the unity and victory of the Ukraine people.”
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he spoke with Zelensky on Wednesday and guaranteed him that Belgium would support Ukraine’s candidate status.
“Considerable efforts will be needed, especially in the fight against corruption and the establishment of an effective rule of law," De Croo said. "But I am convinced that it is precisely the [postwar] reconstruction of Ukraine that will provide opportunities to take important steps forward.”
Zelensky said he spoke with a total of 11 EU leaders Wednesday, following calls with nine the day before, in another indication of how important EU candidacy is for Ukraine.
In other developments:
— Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said a Ukrainian photojournalist and a soldier accompanying him appear to have been “coldly executed” during the first weeks of the war as they searched in Russian-occupied woods for a missing camera drone. The group sent investigators to the woods north of the capital, Kyiv, where the bodies of Maks Levin and serviceman Oleksiy Chernyshov were found April 1. The group said its team counted 14 bullet holes in the burned hulk of their car and found litter seemingly left by Russian soldiers.
— Zelensky said Russian forces were carrying out very heavy air and artillery strikes in the eastern Donbas. “Step by step they want to destroy all of the Donbas. All of it," he said in his nightly video address. Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzianyk said in some battles, for every artillery shell Ukrainian forces fire, the Russian army fires at least six.
— Russian forces captured three villages in the Luhansk region, one of two that make up the Donbas, Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Wednesday. He said the villages are near Lysychansk, the last city in Luhansk still fully under Ukrainian control.
— Russian forces continued shelling Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and nearby towns, killing 10 people, including five women in the village of Pryshyb, Gov. Oleh Sinegubov said.
— All four of the medium-range rocket systems that the U.S. provided to Ukraine several weeks ago are now in the country in the hands of Ukrainian forces but it is not clear if they have used them yet, a U.S. defense official said. The high-mobility artillery rocket systems will give the Ukrainians greater precision in targeting Russian assets. The rockets generally can travel about 45 miles. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military details.
— Russian officials said a drone strike caused a fire at the largest oil refinery in southern Russia on Wednesday. The blaze engulfed a piece of machinery at the Novoshakhtinsk plant in the Rostov-on-Don region. Authorities said dozens of firefighters quickly contained the fire and no one was hurt. Ukrainian authorities have not confirmed the strike.
— Turkey’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that a Turkish ship was allowed to leave the Russian-occupied Azov Sea port of Mariupol following talks between Turkish and Russian defense ministry officials. A ministry statement said a Turkish freighter, Azov Concord, was the first foreign ship to be allowed to leave Mariupol. The ministry did not say what the freighter was carrying. The war has halted critical grain exports by sea.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.