Kyiv, Ukraine – As the EU summit began in Brussels on Thursday evening, an employee of Ukraine’s foreign minister joined the negotiations on a laptop.
Minister Dmytro Kuleba, whose left leg was tight gunmetal after a basketball injury, was optimistic as he watched the European Council grant his war-torn country something it had unsuccessfully sought for years: coveted status as a candidate for the bloc to join
It was some of the best news for Ukraine, which is in the fourth month of war, since a successful counter-offensive drove Russian soldiers out of the capital. Mr Kuleba said the Council’s move 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 joining the 27-strong bloc. The action of the European Council, made up of the leaders of member states, was just the first step in a year-long process, and Ukraine would need to make progress on fighting corruption and enforcing the rule of law to finally pass the muster.
“Sure, there will be talks, reforms here and in the European Union,” he said. “I don’t care. As long as the decision is made that Ukraine is Europe, I’m fine. History has been made.”
Mr Kuleba said that for decades, when Ukrainians fought for democracy in protest movements in 2004 and 2014, Brussels and other European capitals still “cherished this idea of a buffer zone of something in the middle, a bridge between Russia and the EU”.
In the final stage, European leaders unofficially “winked” at Ukrainian officials, he said. “Like, ‘Guys, everything will be fine, it will take years, but you will be with us in the end,'” he said. “But they were still afraid to say it out loud.”
When Mr. Kuleba spoke in the interview, air raid sirens wailed in Kyiv. An employee ran into the office to say that ten Russian missiles were flying over Ukrainian airspace.
“I’m not surprised that the Russians would fire something at Kyiv today,” Mr Kuleba said, adding that the symbolism of the day would not be lost in the Kremlin.
Mr Kuleba, 41, a career diplomat, said he viewed the European Union as “the first-ever attempt to build a liberal empire” on democratic principles, contrasting it with Russia’s aggression against former Soviet states under President Vladimir V Putin.
“I understand people don’t like the word empire, but that’s how history is made,” Mr. Kuleba said. “You have to show that different things of similar magnitude can be built on different principles: those of liberalism, democracy, respect for human rights, and not on the principle of imposing the will of one on the rest.”
Mr Kuleba said he was grateful to other Western allies, particularly the United States, for military and political support. However, he said he hopes for a clearer articulation of Washington’s war aims.
“We are still waiting for the moment when we hear a clear message from Washington that the goal of this war for Washington is for Ukraine to win and for international law to be restored,” he said. “And Ukraine’s victory means for Washington the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
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