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Ukraine received a welcome diplomatic boost at the end of last week. On Friday, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, released an opinion recommending that Ukraine (as well as Moldova, its smaller former Soviet neighbor) be granted candidate status for membership to the European Union. A slate of prominent European leaders said the decision was necessary, mainly as a gesture of solidarity and recognition of Ukrainian courage and valor on the battlefield in the face of the ongoing Russian invasion.

“Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference Friday, while sporting a yellow blazer over a blue blouse — colors of the Ukrainian flag. “We want them to live… the European dream.”

The day prior, the leaders of the European Union’s three largest economies journeyed to Kyiv via an overnight train from Poland and voiced their support, too, for Ukraine’s eventual accession in the European Union. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi appeared alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a joint news conference.

“We are at a turning point in our history,” Draghi said, echoing rhetoric first popularized by Scholz. “Every day,” he added, “the Ukrainian people are defending the values ​​of democracy and liberty that are the pillars of the European project, of our project.”

The war in Ukraine and a ‘turning point in history’

Entry into the continental bloc is hardly a fait accompli. First, all of the EU’s 27 member states have to agree to giving Ukraine candidate status. And then a tangled political and bureaucratic process awaits as the government in Kyiv attempts to align its institutions and regulations with the rest of the union. Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are the current formal candidates for membership to the bloc.

Kyiv already has grounds for disappointment. It wanted fast-track candidate status without conditions attached. “But the commission listed six steps it wants to see Ukraine take,” my colleagues reported. “Among them: implementing laws to ensure the selection of qualified judges and to limit the influence of oligarchs. It also asked that Ukraine improve its track record on investigations, prosecutions and convictions for corruption.”

“Ukraine wasn’t close before and it is not close now,” said one EU diplomat, who spoke to my colleagues on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Ukrainian accession could take years, not least because the country is in the middle of a full-blown war with Russia. And it may not happen at all, with the risk that future political developments in Kyiv and other European capitals could derail the process.

Turkey, for example, won candidate status in 1999 and began accession talks in 2005. But long-ruling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic turn away from the West — combined with hostility from some corners in Europe to the accession of a sizable Muslim-majority nation — effectively put the prospect of Turkey’s entry in deep freeze.

EU leaders happy to pose with Zelensky, hesitant on Ukraine membership

Ukraine doesn’t face such civilizational angst —it has become a kind of lodestar for European politicians and commentators, who see in its struggle a unifying, rallying moment for the geopolitical West. For weeks, Ukrainian officials and parliamentarians have been making their case to governments across the continent on broader ideological grounds.

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, told me last month that Ukrainian accession into the European Union would be a blow to the neo-imperialist ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and would force him to “understand that Ukraine is part of another civilization .”

Ukraine’s soldiers “are not fighting exclusively for their soil” but the hope of extending Europe’s liberal project to their country, she said. “Ukrainians have to be given a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.”

For now, though, the tunnel of the war remains long, winding and dark. On Sunday, Zelensky returned from visiting the front lines in the country’s south, where Russia is looking to consolidate significant territorial gains. “We will not give away the south to anyone,” he said — in part a statement of defiance as Ukraine’s outgunned fighters hold the line, but also an implicit rejection of suggestions from some corners elsewhere that Kyiv may need to settle for territorial concessions.

His remarks were also a reminder that the tide of battle is swinging ominously in the Kremlin’s direction in some parts of the country, with Russia likely preparing for fresh offensives in the coming weeks. On his second visit to Kyiv, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of “war fatigue” demoralizing the West while Russia is “grinding forward inch by inch” in Ukraine.

Putin makes his imperial pretensions clear

The bravado of the visiting European dignitaries belies a more fragile reality. European unity will be threatened by economic pressures; Russia’s recent decision to sharply reduce gas deliveries to the continent now has analysts warning of a bitter, costly winter ahead for much of Europe.

A poll published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) last week found the emergence of two distinct political camps among the European public when it comes to views on the Ukraine war. On one hand, there’s the “peace” camp, which seeks an end to the war as soon as possible — “even if it means Ukraine making concessions,” ECFR noted. Then there’s the “justice” camp, which thinks punishing Russia and restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity should take precedence over demands for peace.

Of the 10 countries surveyed, Italy emerged strongly in the former camp and Poland in the latter. “There are potential divisions over the cost of living, refugees and nuclear escalation, but the big divide is between those who want to end the war as quickly as possible and those who want Russia to be punished,” noted ECFR Director Mark Leonard in an email statement. “If badly handled the gap between the ‘peace camp’ and the ‘justice camp’ over Ukraine could be as damaging as that between creditors and debtors during the euro crisis.”

For now, European leaders are advocating courage and resilience. “We must not let up in supporting Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told German newspaper Bild am Sonntag over the weekend. “Even if the costs are high, not only for military support, but also because of rising energy and food prices.”

Putin, though, may be sensing vulnerability. “They think the domination of the West in global politics and economics is constant and eternal,” he grandiosely declared at a conference in St. Petersburg. “But nothing is eternal.”

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