European Union leaders met in Kyiv on Friday with President Volodymyr Zelensky and delivered a symbolic embrace of Ukraine as it fights for survival against Russia, but they withheld a prize Mr. Zelensky dearly wants, accelerated membership in the bloc.
Their visit came as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle for control of Bakhmut, a small eastern city where an intense, monthslong struggle has cost both sides immense losses. Mr. Zelensky vowed that Ukraine would not give up on Bakhmut, calling it “our fortress.”
E.U. leaders walked a careful line at a Friday news conference with Mr. Zelensky, validating Kyiv’s aspiration to join and reiterating their commitment to supporting Ukraine, but gently applying the brakes on talk of fast-track membership. They noted the $50 billion in financial, humanitarian and military support that the European Union and member countries have pledged so far, and vowed more to come.
“Europe is with you for as long as it takes — until the day when the Ukrainian flag will be raised where it belongs: in Brussels at the heart of the European Union,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the E.U. executive branch, the European Commission. But, she added: “The accession process is a merit-based process. In other words, there are no rigid timelines. But there are goals that you have to reach.”
Given doubts about corruption and the strength of its democratic institutions, Ukraine before the war was not considered a serious prospect to join the bloc in the foreseeable future. Russia’s invasion prompted the European Union to formally make Ukraine a candidate, but moving from that step to membership can take many years. The visit to Kyiv illustrated the balance E.U. officials want to strike, nudging Ukraine toward Brussels’ standards for fighting corruption and ensuring liberal democracy, without making concrete promises about membership.
“I must say I’m deeply impressed,” Ms. von der Leyen told Mr. Zelensky. “I want to commend you for the preciseness, the quality and the speed at which you deliver. This is phenomenal.”
Kyiv’s relations with the European Union and the NATO alliance are central to the reasons President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has cited for going to war, arguing that Ukraine rightly belongs to Moscow, or at least under its influence, and that any move to join Western structures is a threat to Russia’s national security. So far, his invasion has backfired on him, at least as it has strengthened Ukraine’s ties to the West.
The Biden administration on Friday announced $2.2 billion in new military aid to Ukraine that, for the first time, includes a high-precision weapon with significantly longer striking range than anything the West has supplied before, called the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb. It can be fired by the HIMARS launchers the United States has already supplied, but can hit targets more than 90 miles away, compared to about 50 miles for the rockets Ukraine now uses in the same launchers.
Last week, the United States and Germany, following Britain’s lead, agreed to send some of their advanced main battle tanks to Ukraine, weeks after pledging armored fighting vehicles, and on Friday Germany said it would make available older, less capable tanks, as well. Time and again, the West has sent Ukraine arms that it was at first reluctant to provide, fearing Russian escalation; the U.S. contribution now exceeds $29 billion since the invasion.
“The more long-range our weapons are and the more mobile our troops are the sooner Russia’s brutal aggression will end,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter after news broke of the latest munitions.
But Russia still holds large swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine, and is pouring tremendous resources into Mr. Putin’s effort to conquer the entire eastern region known as the Donbas. Both sides hope to launch new offensives in the coming weeks, and Ukrainian officials say stepped-up fighting may mean that the Russian effort has already begun.
Mr. Putin aims to capture the entire Donbas by March, Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence, said on national television on Friday. “The intensity we are currently observing in Donbas is an attempt to implement these plans,” he said.
The most intense combat has been centered on Bakhmut, which has taken on outsized meaning despite what independent analysts say is its limited strategic importance. The slogan “Bakhmut holds” has become a rallying cry for Ukrainians, while Russian forces have thrown wave after wave of troops to try to capture the area, claiming some success in villages and towns around the city.
The slow-moving battle has contributed greatly to casualties on both sides. Western officials recently estimated that Russia is approaching 200,000 dead and wounded in less than a year of fighting, while not offering figures for Ukrainian losses.
“No one will give away Bakhmut,” Mr. Zelensky said at the news conference with E.U. officials. “We consider Bakhmut to be our fortress.”
But Ukraine’s hold on Bakhmut has grown increasingly precarious as Russian forces have closed in, creating what Mr. Zelensky has described as a “very tough” situation. After indicating they would hold out, Ukrainian leaders have previously made hard decisions to retreat, rather than risk having their forces encircled, pulling back last summer from the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, northeast of Bakhmut.
The war has crystallized Ukraine’s dependence on the West to fend off Russian domination — politically, economically and, now, militarily as well. Mr. Putin has long described the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include former Soviet bloc nations and newly independent former Soviet republics — all seeking some distance and protection from Moscow — as both an offensive and an affront.
When NATO stated in 2008 that it planned to admit Ukraine — though not any time soon — Mr. Putin made clear that to him, the alliance had crossed an important red line. In 2013, Mr. Putin pressured Ukraine to abandon a planned trade pact with the European Union and enter with Moscow, instead, prompting a popular uprising that drove Ukraine’s president into exile the next year. Mr. Putin responded by sending troops to seize Crimea and fomenting a separatist war in the Donbas.
With its infrastructure and economy in shambles because of the war, Ukraine now needs enormous sums of Western aid to prop up its daily operations and offer hope of reconstruction. In addition to promising more aid, E.U. officials said the bloc was preparing its 10th round of economic sanctions against Russia. And Ms. von de Leyen said member countries had agreed to cap the prices paid for Russian petroleum products, as they have limited what they pay for Russian crude oil.
Mr. Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials hope that joining the European Union would unlock more aid as well as free trade to rebuild the country, and provide something of a shield against Russia.
But E.U. membership would require meeting the bloc’s standards for overhauling the economy, reining in corruption and public debt, ensuring competitive and fair elections, and safeguarding the independence of the courts and the media, as well as changing laws and regulations to comply with 80,000 pages of rules on matters ranging from environmental protection to food hygiene.
Several countries that have been candidates for years, including Turkey, are far ahead of Ukraine in the process, but are still not considered close to approval. And as Charles Michel, president of the European Council, the group of E.U. heads of government, noted on Friday, admitting another nation to the club would require the unanimous approval of the 27 that are already members.
Ukraine’s corruption problem, in particular, was a concern long before the war. This week, the government conducted a series of anti-corruption raids, some targeting powerful figures allied with Mr. Zelensky, signaling to Brussels that it takes the issue seriously.
Debate this week among diplomats over support for Ukraine came down to one word in the statement they issued after the meeting: “progress.”
While some E.U. nations wanted to recognize Ukraine’s “progress” toward meeting the bloc’s standards, others refused to go that far and insisted that the word be changed to “efforts,” according to four officials who participated in the meetings and spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to share details of the confidential discussions.
It ultimately took two meetings to settle the matter, but the more cautious language carried the day.
The statement cited “the considerable efforts that Ukraine demonstrated in the recent months towards meeting the objectives underpinning its candidate status for E.U. membership, welcomed Ukraine’s reform efforts in such difficult times, and encouraged the country to continue on this path.”
Reporting was contributed by Marc Santora, Richard Pérez-Peña, Andrew E. Kramer, Dan Bilefsky, Shashank Bengali and Monika Pronczuk.