KYIV, Ukraine — An embattled Ukraine moved to solidify its bond with the West on Monday by signing an application to join the European Union, while the first round of Ukraine-Russia talks aimed at ending the fighting concluded with no immediate agreements.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky posted photos of himself signing the EU application, a largely symbolic move that could take years to become reality and is unlikely to sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to pull Ukraine into its orbit.
Russian and Ukrainian officials held their meeting on day five of the war under the shadow of Putin’s nuclear threats, and with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine running into unexpectedly fierce resistance.
Early Monday night, a top adviser to Ukraine’s president said that the first round of talks with Russia had ended and that both delegations had returned home for consultations in their capitals.
Mykhailo Podolyak gave few details except to say that the talks, held near the Ukraine-Belarus border, were focused on a possible cease-fire and that a second round could take place “in the near future.”
At this stage, Ukraine is many years away from reaching the standards for achieving EU membership, and the 27-nation bloc is expansion-weary and unlikely to take on new members any time soon.
Also, any addition to the EU must be approved unanimously, and some member states have complicated approval procedures.
This is a historic moment! pic.twitter.com/rmzdgIwArc
— Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (@ua_parliament) February 28, 2022
Overall, the consensus has been that Ukraine’s deep-seated corruption could make it hard for the country to win EU acceptance. Still, in an interview with Euronews on Sunday, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said, “we want them in the European Union.”
However, several EU officials walked back von der Leyen’s comments, pouring cold water on Zelensky’s plea.
EU officials stressed that the adherence procedure takes years, dampening Ukraine’s hopes that suddenly becoming part of the European club could help it better weather the Russian onslaught and speed up military, financial and political support.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that any bid for membership could take “a lot of years.”
Von der Leyen’s spokesman, Eric Mamer, walked back her comments, telling journalists that the EU chief meant that Ukraine “is a European country and we want them in, meaning Europe in general.”
“She then also specified that there is a process [for joining the EU]. And I think that this is the important point,” he added.
The European Commission said that, in any case, it can only negotiate with hopeful candidate countries on the basis of a mandate from the EU’s 27 member states — something it has not received for Ukraine.
“At the end of the day, this is a debate at the highest political level, for the [European] Council,” where the member states take decisions, said a commission spokeswoman, Ana Pisonero.
The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, told a group of journalists that there were already long-standing disagreements among EU countries on enlarging the bloc.
“There are different opinions and sensitivities within the EU on enlargement,” he told a group of journalists.
He said Kyiv would have to submit an official request to join before member states — which would have to greenlight membership unanimously — could come up with a position.
Meanwhile, outgunned Ukrainian forces managed to slow the Russian advance, and Western sanctions began to squeeze the Russian economy, but the Kremlin again raised the specter of nuclear war, reporting that its land, air and sea nuclear forces were on high alert following Putin’s weekend order.
Stepping up his rhetoric, Putin denounced the US and its allies as an “empire of lies.”
A tense calm reigned in Kyiv, where people lined up to buy food, water and pet food after two nights trapped inside by a strict curfew, but social media video from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, showed residential areas being shelled, with apartment buildings shaken by repeated, powerful blasts. Authorities in Kharkiv said at least seven people had been killed and dozens injured. They warned that casualties could be far higher.
“They wanted to have a blitzkrieg, but it failed, so they act this way,” said 83-year-old Valentin Petrovich, using just his first name and his Russian-style middle name because of fear for his safety. He described watching the shelling from his downtown apartment.
The Russian military has denied targeting residential areas despite abundant evidence of shelling of homes, schools and hospitals.
Meanwhile, as Russia’s Central Bank scrambled to shore up the tanking ruble, Putin signed a decree governing foreign currency, in a bid to stabilize the ruble.
But that did little to calm Russian fears. In Moscow, people lined up to withdraw cash as the sanctions threatened their livelihoods and savings.
Across Ukraine, meanwhile, terrified families huddled overnight in shelters, basements or corridors.
“I sit and pray for these negotiations to end successfully, so that they reach an agreement to end the slaughter, and so there is no more war,” said Alexandra Mikhailova, weeping as she clutched her cat in a makeshift shelter in the strategic southeastern port city of Mariupol. Around her, parents sought to console children and keep them warm.
The UN human rights chief said at least 102 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded in more than four days of fighting — warning that figure is probably a vast undercount — and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead.
More than a half-million people have fled the country since the invasion, another UN official said, with many of them going to Poland, Romania and Hungary. And millions have left their homes.
The negotiations Monday were the first face-to-face talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials since the war began. The delegations met at a long table with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag on one side and the Russian tricolor on the other.
Moscow’s Defense Ministry said that extra personnel were deployed to Russian nuclear forces and that the high alert applies to nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and long-range bombers.
A senior US defense official, speaking Monday on condition of anonymity, said the US had yet to see any appreciable change in Russia’s nuclear posture.
US and British officials have played down Putin’s nuclear threat as posturing. But for many, the move stirred up memories of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and fears that the West could be drawn into direct conflict with Russia.