(CNSNews.com) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has welcomed a decision by European Union leaders to put his country on a path towards joining the bloc, the latest step in a long and costly tussle between the West and Moscow over the future of the former Soviet republic.
“We have been waiting for 120 days and 30 years,” Zelenskyy said in an online post, declaring the decision taken at an E.U. summit in Brussels on Thursday to be a “victory.”
Ukraine declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union three decades ago. And 120 days ago, Russia invaded its former ally, triggering the biggest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the leaders’ decision to grant “candidate status” for both Ukraine and Moldova marked “a good day for Europe.”
“Your countries are part of our European family,” she tweeted. “And today’s historic decision by leaders confirms that.”
Von der Leyen said the decision strengthens the applicant countries “in the face of Russian imperialism,” and also strengthens the E.U. “[b]ecause it shows once again to the world that we are united and strong in the face of external threats.”
E.U. accession is a long and involved process, but Thursday’s unanimous decision by the bloc’s 27 member-states to put the two aspirants on track came considerably more quickly than usual. Ukraine formally applied to join days after the Russian invasion began in February, with Moldova and Georgia following suit shortly thereafter.
(The E.U. leaders stopped short of approving candidate status for Georgia, but European Council president Charles Michel said they were ready to do so, once “outstanding priorities are addressed,” reaffirming that “Georgia’s future lies within the E.U.”)
Russian state media reported on the decision from Brussels, but there was no immediate response from the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin last week shrugged off the move, noting that the E.U. was not a military bloc like NATO.
“We have always said, and I have always said, that our stance [on Ukraine joining the E.U.] is very consistent and clear in his respect: we have nothing against,” he said during an economic forum in St. Petersburg on June 17.
That claim does not hold up. Putin may have declared NATO membership for Ukraine a non-negotiable – and it will likely continue to be a Russian condition in any negotiations aimed at ending the war – but Moscow has also long objected to Ukraine moving towards the E.U., with momentous consequences.
Nine years ago, the Kremlin pressurized a pro-Russian Ukrainian president into backing down at the eleventh hour from signing trade and association agreements with the E.U.
Coming after years of planning, President Viktor Yanukovich’s shock November 2013 decision to change course and suspend talks for European integration in favor of closer ties with Russia, unleashed the mass street protests that led, after a harsh crackdown on demonstrators, to his ousting three months later.
Yanukovich’s downfall, described by Moscow to this day as a “coup” against its ally by “neo-Nazis,” prompted Putin to move troops into Crimea and, after a referendum not recognized by most of the international community, he annexed the region in March 2014.
Russia also then began backing an armed separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, sparking a deadly, years-long conflict. Today Donbass is the locus of the fiercest fighting of the war launched by Putin in February.
Once a country is approved as a candidate, becoming a member of the E.U. is generally a long and involved process, one that entails meeting specified political and economic benchmarks.
Poland, Hungary, and Croatia were candidates for ten years before accession, while for Romania and Bulgaria the process took 12 years. North Macedonia has already been a candidate for 18 years and Montenegro for 14 years.
Turkey became a candidate in 1999, but its relations with the E.U. have lurched from one crisis to another, mostly related to controversial foreign policy decisions and democratic backsliding at home.