BRUSSELS/KYIV, July 1 (Reuters) – Ukraine now has a “very clear European perspective” but the road to EU membership will take time and require hard work, the president of the EU executive told the country’s parliament on Friday.
EU leaders last week granted Ukraine candidate status to join the bloc, formally opening a process that is expected to take years before it becomes a member of the union that now comprises 27 countries.
In a speech by video-link to the Ukrainian assembly, Ursula von der Leyen underlined the progress made by the country in its path towards EU membership while it defends itself against Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
“Ukraine now has a very clear European perspective. And Ukraine is a candidate country to join the European Union, something that seemed almost unimaginable just five months ago,” she told lawmakers and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“There is a long road ahead but Europe will be at your side every step of the way, for as long as it takes, from these dark days of war until the moment you cross the door that leads into our European Union,” she said, noting that many crucial reforms were needed as soon as possible. “The next steps are within your reach. But they will require hard work,” she added.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine must become an EU member state quickly.
“Our path to membership must not take decades,” he said. “We must traverse this path as quickly as possible. This depends on us.”
Ukrainian lawmakers clapped in unison as a huge EU flag was brought into the assembly hall by three servicemen from the National Guard dressed in ceremonial uniforms.
Von der Leyen listed among urgent measures Ukraine needed to take: the adoption of a media law, the implementation of new rules that reduce oligarchs’ excessive clout and the appointment of top anti-corruption officials. Zelenskiy urged lawmakers to pass all those measures.
Russian missiles struck a nine-story apartment building and a resort facility near Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa early on Friday, killing at least 17 people and wounding dozens, Ukrainian authorities said.
The missile struck the building in the town of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi at about 1 a.m. (2200 GMT Thursday), the Ukrainian emergencies ministry said. It also caused a fire in an attached store building.
Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesperson for the Odesa regional administration, told Ukrainian state television that a rescue operation was under way as some people remained buried under the rubble after a section of the building collapsed.
Another missile hit a resort facility, Bratchuk said, wounding several people.
Reuters could not independently confirm details of the incident.
It came after Russia on Thursday said it had decided to withdraw from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill” to show Moscow was not obstructing U.N. attempts to open a humanitarian corridor allowing grains to be shipped from Ukraine.
Ukraine said it had driven Russian forces off the outcrop after an artillery and missile assault, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailing the strategic win.
“It does not yet guarantee security. It does not yet ensure that the enemy will not come back,” he said in his nightly video address. “But this significantly limits the actions of the occupiers. Step by step, we will push them back from our sea, our land and our sky.”
In contrast, however, Ukrainian forces were desperately hanging on in the city of Lysychansk.
Russian artillery shelled from different directions while the Russian army approached from several sides, regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai said on Ukrainian television.
“The superiority in fire power of the occupiers is still very much in evidence,” Zelenskiy said. “They have simply brought in all their reserves to hit us.”
Russian forces have been trying to encircle Lysychansk since they captured Sievierodonetsk, on the opposite side of the Siverskyi Donets River, last week after weeks of heavy fighting.
In Sievierodonetsk, residents have emerged from their basements and are sifting through the rubble of their ruined city as they look to rebuild.
“Almost all the city infrastructure is destroyed. We are living without gas, electricity, and water since May,” Sergei Oleinik, a 65-year-old resident told Reuters. “We are glad that this ended, and soon maybe reconstruction will start, and we will be back to more or less normal life.”
SUPPORT FOR UKRAINE
Despite yielding ground and taking punishing losses in the eastern Donbas in recent weeks, Ukraine hopes to inflict enough damage to exhaust Russia’s advancing army and have counter-attacked in the south of the region.
Ukraine’s Western allies have been sending weapons and the Kyiv government was given another boost with the United States saying it would provide a further $800 million in weapons and military aid.
U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking after a NATO summit in Madrid, said Washington and its allies were united in standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it will not end with Russia defeating Ukraine,” Biden told a news conference. “We are going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
SMOKE AND FIRE
Ukrainian forces in the “south” district of the Joint command of the Ukrainian armed forces killed 35 Russian servicemen and put out of action two tanks and four armoured vehicles, according to a Ukrainian military statement on Facebook on Friday.
“The Ukrainian armed forces are not only holding defence lines but also engaging in successful operations aimed at liberating occupied towns in Kherson region from the invaders,” Kriviy Rih regional Governor Oleksandr Vilkul said on Telegram, adding Ukrainian troops had taken back the town of Potyomkin.
Reuters could not immediately verify battlefield claims.
Snake Island was retaken by Ukraine after weeks in which momentum in the four-month-old conflict appeared to be shifting in favour of Russia.
The Ukrainian military posted an image on Facebook of what appeared to be the island, seen from the air, with several columns of black smoke rising above it.
“The enemy hurriedly evacuated the remains of the garrison with two speed boats and probably left the island. Currently, Snake island is consumed by fire, explosions are bursting,” it said.
Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksii Hromov said Ukrainian forces were not yet occupying the island but would do so.
The rocky outcrop overlooks sea lanes to Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port, where Russia is blocking food cargos from one of the world’s leading grain suppliers.
Lifting the blockade has been a primary goal of the West. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of deliberately causing world hunger as “blackmail”.
Moscow denies blocking the ports and blames food shortages on Western sanctions it says limit its own exports.
Speaking in Moscow on Thursday, Indonesian leader Joko Widodo offered to be a diplomatic bridge between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, and said he hoped global food and fertiliser supply lines could be repaired.
“I really appreciate President Putin who said earlier that he will provide a security guarantee for food and fertiliser supplies from both Russia and Ukraine. This is good news,” he said.