(MENAFN- Gulf Times) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said yesterday that his forces would hold out as long as possible in war-battered Bakhmut, as he hosted a summit with EU chiefs who praised Kyiv's push for reforms needed to join the bloc.
European Union chief Charles Michel, on his second visit in less than three weeks, doubled down on his backing for Kyiv's integration with Brussels, saying that“Ukraine is the EU, the EU is Ukraine”.
The symbolic summit took place as Zelensky presses for a speedy accession to the EU as Ukraine fends off Russia's nearly year-long invasion.
The Ukrainian leader urged the West to supply Kyiv with more sophisticated weapons to help his forces retain control of Bakhmut, the city at the epicentre of the fighting and where Russia is pushing hardest.
“No one will surrender Bakhmut. We will fight as long as we can,” said the Ukrainian leader, standing shoulder to shoulder with Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, describing the city as a“fortress”.
“If weapon (deliveries) are accelerated – namely long-range weapons – we will not only not withdraw from Bakhmut, we will begin to de-occupy Donbas,” the eastern Ukraine region, Zelensky added.
Shortly after he spoke, air raid sirens sounded once again in Kyiv and across the country – a regular occurrence during months of Russian missile attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure far from the battlefields in the east and south – but there were no immediate reports of new air strikes.
In June last year, just months after the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine, the European Union extended candidate status to Kyiv, but the path to full membership is likely to be fraught and could take years.
The EU in a statement yesterday acknowledged that Ukraine had made“considerable efforts” to advance towards membership but urged Kyiv to implement further reforms.
Graft is a key European concern and Ukraine has widened efforts to tackle corruption with highly-publicised raids this week targeting an oligarch with political connections and a former interior minister.
“You are at war, and while being at war, and defending your country against the aggressor, you're able to deliver one deliverable after the next that is necessary to move forward,” von der Leyen said.
However, she cautioned that the process of accession was merit-based and said that there could be“no rigid timelines” put in place for Ukrainian membership or talks.
Zelensky has been clear he wants Ukraine to join as fast as possible and has said he wants the discussions to start this year.
“Our goal is absolutely clear: to start negotiations on Ukraine's membership,” he said yesterday.“We will not lose a single day in our work to bring Ukraine and the EU closer together.”
He made the appeal for more weapons from EU member states and Washington, while in Bakhmut, the frontline of a prolonged battle between Ukrainian and Russian forces, there was no let-up in fighting.
Throughout the morning, AFP journalists heard a steady exchange of small arms fire and the pounding of mortar shells to and from Russian positions.
Smoke could be seen rising from the city centre, behind the golden-domed All Saints' Church and Ukrainian helicopters flew low towards Bakhmut over the frozen countryside to the northwest.
A charity helping residents in the war-battered town said an attack on a car carrying volunteer paramedics killed one and injured several others the day before.
A police official said that an investigation was under way but it could take several days to determine the identity of the victim, after reports that foreign nationals may have been involved.
Oleksandr Tkachenko, 65, said he and three other locals rushed to help when the car was hit, and managed to pull an injured woman free from the vehicle.
He said that it is“clear” that the car, which was destroyed in the strike, was not a military target.
Locals involved in the rescue were also not soldiers, he added, but they also came under attack and were injured in a second strike as they tried to help.
“I don't know how we didn't get torn apart. I got shrapnel in my leg,” added Tkachenko, limping towards a community centre with the help of a walking stick.
To compensate Ukraine for damage inflicted across the country since February last year, the EU vowed to ramp up efforts to divert Russia's frozen assets for use as compensation.
Von der Leyen announced in Kyiv this week that the EU planned to roll out its next package of sanctions to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion on February 24.
And she estimated that an oil price cap is costing Moscow around €160mn every day.
Separately, an EU ban on some Russian oil products – like diesel, gasoline and jet fuel – is set to come into effect tomorrow alongside a G7 price cap on these products.
The Kremlin warned yesterday that the measures would destabilise world markets rather than only impact Russia.
“This will lead to a further imbalance of the international energy markets, but we are taking measures to hedge our interests against the risks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Kyiv has secured promises from the West for deliveries of modern battle tanks to fight Russian forces and is now asking for long-range missiles and fighter jets.
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