LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine (AP) — The European Union’s executive arm recommended putting Ukraine on a path to membership Friday, a symbolic boost for the embattled country but one that did not slow a Russian onslaught in the east that is taking civilian lives and flattening cities.
The possibility of membership in a union created to safeguard peace on the continent and that stands as a model for the rule of law and prosperity fulfills a wish of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the many Western-looking citizens resisting Russia’s invasion.
The latest embrace of Ukraine by its European allies also marks another setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched his war nearly four months ago, hoping to pull his ex-Soviet neighbor back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin was scheduled to address Russia’s showpiece economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday, but his speech had to be delayed because the forum’s website was hit with a cyberattack.
The European Commission’s recommendation that Ukraine become a candidate for membership will be discussed by leaders of the 27-nation bloc during a summit next week in Brussels. The war has increased pressure on EU governments to fast-track Ukraine’s candidate status. But the process is expected to take years, and EU members remain divided over how quickly and fully to open their arms to new members.
Support for Ukraine from Western countries — both political and military — has been key to its surprising success in the face of larger and better-equipped Russian forces. Zelenskyy has also clamored for more immediate support in the form of more and better weapons to turn the tide in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
Russia pressed its offensive there Friday, leaving desperate residents struggling to make sense of what the future holds for them.
“We are old people, we do not have a place to go. Where will I go?” asked Vira Miedientseva, one of the elderly residents grappling with the aftermath of an attack Thursday in Lysychansk, which lies just across the river from Sievierodonetsk, a key focus of battles in recent weeks that Russians have nearly captured.
In other developments:
— The Ukrainian navy claimed Friday that it destroyed a Russian boat carrying air defense systems to a strategic island in the Black Sea. In a statement on social media, the navy said that the Vasily Bekh was used to transport ammunition, weapons and personnel to Snake Island, which is vital for protecting sea lanes out of the key port of Odesa.
Snake Island, located some 20 miles off the coast, figured memorably early in the war when Ukrainian border guards stationed there defied Russian orders to surrender, using colorful language that later became a rallying cry. There was no immediate reaction from Russian authorities about the Ukrainian claim.
— The organizer of the Eurovision Song Contest said Friday that it will start talks with the BBC on possibly holding next year’s event in the U.K. after concluding that it can’t be held in Ukraine. Last month, Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the 2022 contest, buoying Ukrainian spirits. The event is traditionally staged by the previous year’s winner.
After a series of setbacks early in the war, including the failure to seize Ukraine’s capital, Russian forces have switched their focus to the Donbas, pressing a grinding offensive. In recent weeks, they have moved in on Sievierodonetsk and surrounding villages — the last pocket of the Luhansk region not yet claimed by Russia or its allies.
“The Russians are pouring fire on the city,” said Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to fight in Sievierodonetsk, because the Russians outnumber us in artillery and manpower, and it’s very difficult for us to resist this barrage of fire.”
The constant shelling made it impossible for 568 people, including 38 children, sheltering in the Azot chemical plant in the city to escape, he said.
Russian forces have destroyed all three bridges leading out of the city, but Haidai said it still had not been fully blocked off.
The Moscow envoy for Russia-backed separatists who control much of the territory around Sievierodonetsk said an evacuation from the Azot plant could take place, under certain conditions.
Writing on social media on Friday, Rodion Miroshnik of the self-proclaimed Luhansk’s People’s Republic said Russian troops and separatists are “ready to consider options for opening a humanitarian corridor for the exit of civilians, but subject to strict adherence to the cease-fire.”
Earlier this week, Miroshnik accused Kyiv’s troops of trying to disrupt the evacuation of civilians from Azot, a claim vigorously denied by Ukrainian officials.