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'sto join the bloc 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 fightingbut 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 cut the ground from under "the legs of those most hesitating."
She described the decision as vitally important for Ukraineagainst Russia and said candidacy status would validate decades of effort by the country to bring its institutions and markets up to EU norms.
"It's very important for us to set it in stone that we did so much, and we will do much more," Stefanishyna told the AP. "And in the time of war — when everything is operating — it's very important."
EU candidate status, which can be granted only if the existing member countries agree unanimously, is the first step on the road toward membership. It does not provide any security guarantees nor does it grant 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.
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 also thinks will result in Ukraine becoming a candidate for EU membership.
"That is 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 motivation factor for the unity and victory of the Ukraine people."
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 in Ukraine 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 the pair's 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. Gov. Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the villages are a few miles from the city of Lysychansk, the last city in the area still fully under Ukrainian control. The Russians have also taken a strategic coal village, Toshkivka, enabling them to intensify attacks, Haidai said.
—Russian officials said a drone strike caused a fire at an oil processing plant in southwestern Russia on Wednesday. The blaze engulfed a piece of machinery at the Novoshakhtinsk plant in the Rostov-on-Don region. Authorities said that dozens of firefighters quickly contained the fire and no one was hurt. The plant said in a statement that the fire was caused by a strike carried out by two drones, describing it as a "terrorist" act. It didn't give details, but the state news agency Tass reported that two Ukrainian drones flew over the plant and one slammed into a heat exchanger, triggering the fire. 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 the 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 ally, was executed as an act of "strategic solidarity" amid Russia's war in Ukraine.
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