KYIV, Ukraine — As the European Union summit kicked off Thursday evening in Brussels, an aide to Ukraine’s foreign minister followed the proceedings on a laptop.
The minister, Dmytro Kuleba, whose left leg was in a tight red cast after a basketball injury, was optimistic as he watched the European Council grant his war-torn country what it had been seeking unsuccessfully for years: the coveted status of a candidate to join the bloc.
It was some of the best news for Ukraine, which is in its fourth month of war, since a successful counter-offensive drove Russian troops away from the capital. Mr Kuleba said the council’s decision was “the most important step in overcoming the last psychological barrier in relations between Ukraine and the European Union”.
Still, he acknowledged that his country would have to wait a long time before it could join the 27-member bloc. The action of the European Council, made up of the leaders of the Member States, was only the first step in a year-long process, and Ukraine should make progress in the fight against corruption and the application of the rule of law to finally get over the course.
“Of course there will be discussions, reforms here and in the European Union,” he said. “I don’t care. As long as the decision that Ukraine is Europe is made, I’m fine. History has been made.
Mr Kuleba said that for decades, as Ukrainians fought for democracy in protest movements in 2004 and 2014, Brussels and other European capitals “still entertained this idea of a buffer zone of something at the medium, a bridge between Russia and the EU”.
In the final phase, he said, European leaders were informally “winking” at Ukrainian officials. “Like, ‘Guys, it’ll be fine, it’ll take years, but in the end you’ll be with us,'” he said. “But they were always afraid to say it out loud.”
As Mr Kuleba spoke in the interview, the air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv. An aide rushed into the office to say there were 10 Russian missiles flying over Ukrainian airspace.
“I’m not surprised that the Russians are shooting something at Kyiv today,” Kuleba said, adding that the day’s symbolism would not be lost on the Kremlin.
Mr. Kuleba, 41, career diplomat,
said he saw the European Union as “the first-ever attempt to build a liberal empire” on democratic principles, contrasting it with Russia’s aggression towards former Soviet states under President Vladimir V. Putin .
“I understand that people don’t like the word empire, but that’s how history is written,” Mr Kuleba said. “We must show that different things of the same magnitude can be built on different principles: those of liberalism, democracy, respect for human rights, and not on the principle of the imposition of the will one over the other.”
Kuleba said he was grateful to other Western allies, especially the United States, for their military and political support. However, he said he hoped for a more explicit articulation of Washington’s war aims.
“We are still waiting for the moment when we will hear a clear message from Washington that for Washington the goal of this war is for Ukraine to win and for international law to be restored,” he said. “And Ukraine’s victory for Washington means the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”