KYIV (Reuters) -The European Union offered strong support for Ukraine at a summit in Kyiv as air raid sirens wailed on Friday, but set “no rigid time lines” for its accession to the wealthy bloc.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had hoped the EU would put Ukraine on a rapid road to membership. He used the summit to step up calls for allies to deliver long-range weapons to help repel Russian forces besieging the city of Bakhmut and occupying much of the eastern Donbas industrial region.
“If weapons (supplies) are quickened, specifically long-range weapons, we not only will not leave Bakhmut, but we will also begin to deoccupy Donbas,” he told a joint news conference after the summit.
Ukrainian forces have held out for months in Bakhmut, where fighting is fierce, one of the main focal points of the war since Russia’s invasion of its neighbour almost a year ago.
“Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress,” Zelenskiy said.
Air raid sirens blared across Ukraine twice during the day as Zelenskiy hosted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, chairman of the 27 EU national leaders.
The EU-Ukraine summit was the first on Ukrainian soil since the Russian invasion. It focused on improving access for Ukrainian products to the EU market, helping Ukraine cover its energy needs after weeks of air strikes, new sanctions and prosecuting Russian leaders for the war.
Speaking in a video address after the summit, Zelenskiy said, “we have an understanding that it will be possible for Ukraine to start EU accession negotiations this year”.
But at the summit itself there was no promise of fast-track membership and the EU’s next package of sanctions on Russia, its 10th, is expected to fall short of Kyiv’s expectations.
Kyiv applied to become an EU member shortly after the invasion began and wants to start formal accession talks as soon as possible.
“There are no rigid time lines, but there are goals that you have to reach,” von der Leyen told the news conference.
She praised the Kyiv government’s changes for what she said was “the precision, the quality and speed at which you deliver”.
The EU has underlined the need for Ukraine to step up its fight against endemic corruption, reform the judiciary to free it from political meddling, and strengthen its economy.
Ukrainian authorities have in recent weeks sacked senior officials and opened investigations into suspected corruption as part of a crackdown on wrongdoing.
In his evening address, Zelenskiy promised more punitive measures, and thanked law enforcement agencies for moving against “those who didn’t understand that in public positions one should work only in the interests of the state”.
Despite the air raid sirens, there were no reports of missile strikes after attacks on critical infrastructure in recent months that have caused widespread power outages.
Multiple political, economic and legal entry criteria mean the accession process takes years.
The EU’s eastward expansion also faces resistance from some EU states including France and is opposed by Moscow, which portrays the former Soviet republic’s accession to Western institutions as a threat to security. EU officials speak of “managing expectations” on quick accession.
Reporting by Max Hunder and Tom Balmforth; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren and Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Grant McCool