KYIV, Ukraine — 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 Zelenskyy 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 taken the ground out from under “the legacy 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 told the AP that she think 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, Zelenskyy described the Brussels summit as “two decisive days” that he, like Stefanishyna, 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 motivational factor for the unity and victory of the Ukrainian people.”
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he spoke with Zelenskyy 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 Cross said. “But I am convinced that it is precisely the (post-war) reconstruction of Ukraine that will provide opportunities to take important steps forward.”
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.
— Russian forces have captured three villages in the heavily contested eastern region of Ukraine, a local official said. Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the villages are near Lysychansk, the last city in his province still fully under Ukrainian control. The Russians have also taken a strategic coal village, Toshkivka, enabling them to intensify attacks, Haidai said.
— The Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Russian forces killed up to 500 Ukrainian servicemen in strikes Tuesday against a shipbuilding plant in Mykolaiv. The ministry also said Ukrainian forces evacuated up to 30 wounded and eight dead American and British fighters from near Mykolaivka, a town in the Donetsk region. Ukrainian officials have not confirmed those claims; instead, they reported more Russian shelling of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzianyk said in some battles, for every artillery shell Ukrainian forces fire, the Russian army fires at least six.
— Satellite images of Snake Island appear to show damage from a Ukrainian attack on the Russian-occupied island in the Black Sea. The Maxar Technologies images taken Tuesday show three new scorched areas that were not there four days earlier. Russia and Ukraine offer conflicting accounts of the attack. The Ukrainian military’s southern command said it inflicted “significant losses” on Russian troops in an attack using “various forces and methods of destruction,” while the Russian Defense Ministry said its air defenses successfully repelled the Ukrainian assault. Russian forces captured the small rocky island in the first days of the war and have used it to strengthen their control over the northwestern part of the sea.
— Russian officials said a drone strike caused a fire at an oil refinery in southwestern 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. Turkish and Russian military delegations met in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss a possible deal for the shipment of Ukraine’s grain through the Black Sea.
— French armed forces conducted a surprise military exercise in Estonia, deploying more than 100 paratroopers in the Baltic country that neighbors Russia, the French defense ministry said Wednesday. The airborne operation, dubbed “Thunder Lynx,” enabled, at short notice, the dropping of about 100 French paratroopers “over an area secured by Estonian soldiers,” the statement said. The exercise in Estonia, a NATO member, was executed as an act of “strategic solidarity” during Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Sam Petrequin in Brussels, Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine