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Ukraine to take next step in long EU membership process as Donbas battles rage

Updates from Day 120 of the invasion

  • EU begins 2-day summit, expected to accept Ukraine as a candidate for membership.

  • Competing claims over degree of control of Severodonetsk in the Donbas.

  • Ukraine President Zelensky took his message to Canadian students on Wednesday.

  • Germany triggers new stage in energy plan, warns rationing in winter possible.

Ukraine will be accepted as a candidate to join the European Union on Thursday, a move that will boost the country’s morale as the battle with Russian troops for two cities in the east reached what one official called a “fierce climax.”

Although the approval of the Kyiv government’s application by EU leaders meeting in Brussels is just the start of what will be a years-long process, it signifies a huge geopolitical shift and will irritate Russia as it struggles to impose its will on Ukraine.

It will be four months on Friday since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops across the border in what he calls a “special military operation” partly necessitated by Western encroachment into what Russia views as its sphere of influence.

The conflict, which the West sees as an unjustified war of aggression by Russia, has killed thousands, displaced millions and destroyed cities as well as having ramifications across much of the globe as food and energy exports have been curtailed.

Russia focused its campaign on southern and eastern Ukraine after its advance on the capital, Kyiv, in the early stages of the conflict was thwarted by dogged Ukrainian resistance.

WATCH l Zelensky tells Canadian postsecondary students of dangers of ‘Ukraine fatigue’:

Zelensky urges Canadian university students not to forget about Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky virtually addressed university students across Canada to bolster support and help avoid what some have called Ukraine fatigue.

‘Fearsome climax’ in Donbas: Ukraine official

Moscow’s massive air and artillery attacks are aimed at destroying the entire Donbas region, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address on Thursday.

The war of attrition in the Donbas — Ukraine’s industrial heartland — is most critical in the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which straddle the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk province.

The battle there is “entering a sort of fearsome climax,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky.

Ukrainian forces were defending Severodonetsk and the nearby settlements of Zolote and Vovchoyrovka, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Gaidai said on Thursday, but Russian forces had captured Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka to the south.

Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a chemical plant in Severodonetsk while Ukraine and Russia dispute who controls the bombed-out city.

Moscow says Ukrainian forces in the city are surrounded and trapped. But Gaidai told Ukrainian Television on Wednesday that Russian forces did not have full control of Severodonetsk, but admitted troops there may have to retreat to new positions.

WATCH l CBC News on the ground in Kharkiv, where mayor says 150,000 have been displaced:

Kharkiv torn between return to normalcy and lingering fear

Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv is showing signs of life, but fears remain over Russian attacks.

TASS news agency cited Russian-backed separatists saying Lysychansk was now surrounded and cut off from supplies after a road connecting the city to the town of Sieviersk was taken.

Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the report.

‘Risk of full gas disruption’: EU official

Zelensky said he had spoken to 11 EU leaders on Wednesday about Ukraine’s candidacy and will make more calls on Thursday.

As well as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are also seeking to the join the EU in what would be its most ambitious expansion since welcoming Eastern European states after the Cold War.

WATCH l EU cut Russian oil imports, with a few exceptions, earlier this month:

EU announces partial ban on Russian oil imports

European Union leaders have agreed to cut most Russian oil imports over the next six months after reaching a compromise with Hungary.

Diplomats say it will take Ukraine a decade or more to meet the criteria for joining the EU. But EU leaders say the bloc must make a gesture that recognizes Ukraine’s sacrifice.

EU and Western leaders are also very concerned about global energy and food supplies in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine beginning Feb. 24.

“The risk of full gas disruption is now more real than ever before,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU’s climate policy chief, on Wednesday.

Russia may cut off gas to Europe entirely to bolster its political leverage, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its own statements on Wednesday, adding that leaders there needed to prepare now.

Several European countries have outlined measures to withstand a supply squeeze and avert winter energy shortages and an inflation spike that could test the continent’s resolve to maintain sanctions on Russia.

Germany on Thursday triggered the “alarm stage” of its emergency gas plan on Thursday in response to falling Russian supplies, but stopped short of allowing utilities to pass on soaring energy costs to customers in Europe’s largest economy.

The measure is the latest escalation in a standoff between Europe and Moscow since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has exposed the bloc’s dependence on Russian gas supplies and sparked a frantic search for alternative energy sources.

Energy rationing in Germany possible

The decision, announced by the economy minister, marks a stark shift especially for Germany, which has cultivated strong energy ties with Moscow.

“The cut in gas supplies is an economic attack on us by Putin,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in a statement, adding Germans would have to reduce consumption. Gas rationing would hopefully be avoided but cannot be ruled out, Habeck said.

“Summer is here, a summer after a long period of the pandemic and people want to enjoy time outside and maybe without political misery for once. But winter will arrive,” he added.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, speaks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ahead of the two-day EU summit on Thursday in Brussels. Germany has triggered a new stage in its gas supply plan due to a Russian supply squeeze. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has denied the gas supply reductions were premeditated, with state supplier Gazprom blaming a delay in return of serviced equipment caused by Western sanctions.

The second “alarm stage” of the three-stage emergency plan is activated when the German government sees a high risk of long-term supply shortages. It theoretically allows utilities to pass on high prices to industry and households and thereby help to lower demand.

In the second stage, the market is still able to function without the need for state intervention that would kick in the final emergency stage.

The supply cuts have also driven German companies to contemplate resorting to polluting forms of energy, such as coal, previously considered unthinkable due to pledges made at global climate summits.

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