Ukraine’s first step towards the EU club is a huge moment – but Putin will do all he can to thwart it


It had all the makings of one of those nightmare EU summits.

A crucially important meeting that would drag on rancorously late beyond the end of the week.

The villain of the piece, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban – whose critics call him Putin’s puppet – had arrived looking up for a fight.

There was nothing to discuss, he said, when it came to talks on Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.

Ukraine-Russia war latest updates

But by early evening a summit surprise – striding into the reporters’ hall, EU Council president Charles Michel had a breakthrough to announce.

The EU had approved the start of talks on Ukraine joining the union. Hungary‘s opposition had appeared to crumble.

This is a huge moment for Ukraine. Ukrainians have a chance now to meet the destiny they set themselves almost a decade ago when they rose up to throw off Russian domination.

And it gives them even more to fight for.

It will be a massive boost to morale as they prepare for a long hard winter, with their infrastructure set to be pummelled again and again by armadas of Russian drones.

And not a moment too soon. As EU leaders were meeting in Brussels, in Moscow, their antagonist, President Putin, was sounding as belligerent as ever.

European Council President Charles Michel, front right, speaks with President Zelenskyy, front second right, and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, second row center, at an EU summit in Brussels in February
President Zelenskyy and EU leaders in February

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen,  President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and European Council President Charles Michel at an EU summit in February
Ursula von der Leyen, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Charles Michel at an EU summit in February

He spelt it out again: his war is about destroying Ukraine as a country.

Ukraine’s cities, he said, were Russian – the conflict is a civil war because Ukrainians are really Russians.

If he prevails, today’s diplomatic victory for President Zelenskyy will be irrelevant; there will be no Ukraine to join the EU.

And that is not out of the question now.

Read more:
Are we ready for a world where Ukraine loses?
Putin emboldened as Ukraine set to struggle without support

For all its Western-supplied tanks, Western training and Western strategising, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has ended in failure – casting considerable doubt over what happens next.

Russia has learned from its mistakes and is being armed faster by autocratic allies than Ukraine is by the West. And Putin has time on his side.

There is talk of fatigue setting in in Western capitals. Divisions in Washington and Brussels could jeopardise future Western support.

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There will be many more stages in Ukraine’s years-long effort to join the EU, each one with the chance of undoing its chances.

But make no mistake. This is a big deal for Ukraine – another major step westwards and away from Russia.

And make no mistake either about Vladimir Putin’s determination to do whatever it takes to thwart it.

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