The European Union offered strong support for Ukraine at a summit held in Kyiv as air raid sirens wailed on Friday, but set “no rigid timelines” for its accession to the wealthy bloc.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had hoped the EU would put Ukraine on a rapid road to membership. But he used the summit to step up calls for his allies to deliver long-range weapons to help repel Russian forces besieging the city of Bakhmut and occupying much of the Donbas region in the east of the country.
“If weapons (supplies) are quickened, specifically long-range weapons, we not only will not leave Bakhmut, but we will also begin to deoccupy Donbas, which has been occupied since 2014,” he told a joint news conference after the summit.
Ukrainian forces have held out for months in Bakhmut, where fighting has been fierce.
“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 on Feb. 24, 2022. It focused on improving access for Ukrainian products to the EU market, helping Ukraine cover its energy needs after weeks of Russian air strikes, new sanctions on Moscow and prosecuting Russian leaders for the war.
But there was no promise of fast-track membership and the EU’s next package of sanctions on Russia, it tenth, is expected to fall short of Kyiv’s expectations.
Kyiv applied to become an EU member shortly after Russia’s invasion and wants to start formal accession talks as soon as possible.
“There are no rigid timelines, but there are goals that you have to reach,” von der Leyen told the news conference in response to a question about Ukraine’s accession drive.
But she praised Kyiv’s reform efforts for what she said was “the precision, the quality and speed at which you deliver”, describing Ukrainian efforts as “phenomenal” while the war is raging in the east and south.
Despite the air raid sirens, there were no reports of missile strikes after Russian attacks on critical infrastructure in recent months that have caused widespread power outages.
After separate talks on Thursday with von der Leyen and members of the EU’s executive European Commission, Zelenskiy had said in his nightly address that Ukraine deserved to be able to start formal negotiations on EU membership this year.
The EU has instead 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.
Multiple political, economic and legal entry criteria mean the 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 Russia’s security.
EU officials speak of “managing expectations” on quick accession as Moscow wages war on Ukraine.