EU chief Ursula von der Leyen promises a signal on Ukraine’s bid for membership next week

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The European Commission will provide a clear signal next week on Ukraine’s EU candidate status bid, its chief Ursula von der Leyen has said, as fighting rages in the east and south of the country.

Von der Leyen said talks she held with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday “will enable us to finalise our assessment by the end of next week” — the first time the bloc has publicly given a sense of timing.

Zelensky has pressed for rapid admission to the European Union, but officials and leaders in the bloc caution that, even with candidacy status, membership could take years or even decades.

Despite reservations among some member states, EU leaders are expected to approve Ukraine‘s candidate status, though with strict conditions attached.

“Russia wants to ruin European unity, wants to leave Europe divided and wants to leave it weak. The entirety of Europe is a target for Russia. Ukraine is only the first stage in this aggression,” Zelensky said, warning it was a “decisive time” for his country and the EU.

CRISIS AND FAMINE

Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore on Saturday, Zelensky highlighted the dangers of a food crisis posed by Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports.

He warned of an acute food crisis, adding that the “shortage of foodstuffs will inexorably lead to political chaos”.

Also Saturday, Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday cited reports of Russians loading trucks with Ukrainian wheat and taking it to Russian-controlled areas.

Before the war, Russia and Ukraine produced 30 percent of the global wheat supply, but grain is stuck in Ukraine’s ports and Western sanctions have disrupted exports from Russia.

At the summit, Zelensky urged international pressure to end the blockade, speaking to delegates including Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe, who on Sunday reiterated Beijing’s position on the crisis.

“On the Ukrainian crisis, China has never provided any material support to Russia,” he said, adding that it supported peace negotiations and hoped “NATO will have talks with Russia”.

‘RUINED’

In attempts to conquer eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have been pushing for control of the key industrial city of Severodonetsk for weeks.

On Sunday, Ukraine’s general staff said Russia was conducting “unsuccessful” assaults on the city, where about 800 civilians have taken refuge in the Azot chemical plant‘s bunkers, according to the tycoon whose company owns the facility.

Gaiday said Saturday that the Azot plant had been “shelled intensely for hours” and the city had been “ruined” by Russian forces.

“This is their tactics — people are not needed, the infrastructure is not needed, houses are not needed, everything should be simply ruined,” he said.

The number of civilian victims would be “enormous and terrible”, he added.

Gaiday said Ukrainian fighters in Severodonetsk were winning street battles, but that Russian artillery would then destroy the buildings those fighters were using for cover — “storey by storey”.

In Donetsk, two civilian deaths and 11 injuries were reported across the region on Saturday, its governor said.

According to the area’s military administration, “all major cities in the free territory” of Donetsk “have been without electricity” since Saturday.

In the south, a man died in Odessa after coming into contact with an explosive object while swimming at a beach with his wife and son, the regional Ukrainian command said. Visiting beaches there is currently banned due to the risks of mines.

For residents in nearby Mykolaiv, every day brings a brush with death.

Igor Karputov, 31, recalled how his neighbourhood was hit last week, shaking his apartment, and how he helped a bleeding man to an ambulance.

“Then I went to another place which had been hit, where emergency services were already taking care of someone,” he told AFP.

“But they were dead. And the one I had helped died in an ambulance.”

Mykolaiv regional governor Vitaliy Kim stressed the urgent need for international military assistance.

Russia‘s army is more powerful, they have a lot of artillery and ammo… and we are out of ammo,” he said Saturday.

On Sunday, the southern command said the Ukrainian Air Force had destroyed ammunition depots and equipment in three air strikes in the last 24 hours, without naming their locations.

RUSSIAN PASSPORTS ISSUED

In areas now controlled by its forces, Moscow has sought to impose its authority.

Officials in the occupied city of Kherson handed out Russian passports to residents for the first time on Saturday, local news agencies reported.

Russia‘s TASS agency said 23 Kherson residents received a Russian passport at a ceremony through a “simplified procedure” allowed by a decree from President Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine has called the passports “legally void”.