By Pavel Polityuk and Vitalii Hnidyi

KYIV (Reuters) – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine’s official bid for European Union membership was a big step towards strengthening Europe at a time when Russia was testing its freedom and unity.

Friday marks four months since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent forces across the border into Ukraine, sparking the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II, killing thousands, uprooting millions of people and reducing cities to rubble.

It also triggered a global energy and food crisis.

After failing to score a quick victory by capturing Kyiv, Putin’s forces are now focused on taking over eastern Ukraine in what has become a war of attrition, with no end in sight, and the risk that the conflict could spread to Europe.

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Zelenskiy told EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday that their decision to accept Kyiv’s bid was one of the most important for Ukraine since it split from the Soviet Union 31 years ago.

“But this decision is not only taken for the benefit of Ukraine. It is the biggest step towards the strengthening of Europe that could have been taken at this time, in our time, and while the Russian war tests our ability to preserve freedom and unity,” he said.

European Council chief Charles Michel tweeted after the decision: “A historic moment”, adding “Our future is together”.

Approval of Kyiv’s EU bid will irritate Russia, which worries about closer ties between Ukraine and the West.

Moscow launched its “special military operation” on February 24 to ensure security at its borders. Kyiv and the West say Putin has launched an unprovoked invasion.

Moldova has also become an official EU candidate, signaling the bloc’s intention to push deep into the former Soviet Union.

The road to EU membership will boost Ukraine’s morale enormously, but will be long and could take years.

Zelenskiy vowed not to rest until Russia’s defeat and full membership were secured.

“We can defeat the enemy, rebuild Ukraine, join the EU, then we can rest,” he said in a video released by his office.

Ukraine’s and Moldova’s decision to join the EU goes hand in hand with Sweden’s and Finland’s demands to join NATO following the Russian invasion – indications that the The Kremlin’s military actions have backfired on its geopolitical goals.

The battle for Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, its industrial heartland, is most critical in the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which lie on opposite banks of the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk province.

The battle there “is entering a kind of fearsome climax,” Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said on Thursday.

Russian forces were trying to surround Ukrainian troops defending Lysychansk, senior Ukrainian defense official Oleksiy Gromov said at a press briefing on Thursday.

Lugansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said all of Lysychansk was within range of Russian fire and Ukrainian troops there could retreat to new positions to avoid being trapped.

Russian-backed separatist forces said heavy fighting was underway around Ukrainian positions in Hirske, which is on the western side of the main north-south road to Lysychansk, and Zolote, another settlement to the south.

Ukrainian forces were defending Sievierodonetsk and nearby Zolote and Vovchoyrovka, Gaidai said, but Russian troops had captured Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka to the south. Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk.

On the southern front, Russian forces hit fuel tanks and military equipment of the Ukrainian army near Mykolaiv with high-precision weapons, the Russian Defense Ministry said, quoted by the Interfax news agency. .

A river port and shipbuilding center off the Black Sea, Mykolaiv has been a stronghold against Russian efforts to push west towards Ukraine’s main port city of Odessa.

Authorities in the small town of Derhachi, northwest of Kharkiv, said Friday morning heavy Russian shelling had cut off most electricity and natural gas supplies.

Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, is the second largest city in the country.

Zelenskiy urged Ukraine’s allies to speed up heavy weapons deliveries to match Russia on the battlefield.

Ukraine’s defense minister said the HIMARS multiple rocket systems arrived from the United States. With a range of 70 km (44 miles), the systems can challenge Russian artillery batteries that have bludgeoned Ukrainian cities from afar.

The United States will provide an additional $450 million in security assistance to Ukraine, including more long-range rocket systems, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said Britain is willing to help with mine-clearing operations off Ukraine’s southern coast and is considering offering insurance to ships carrying millions of tonnes of grain stranded in the country.

(Reporting by Reuters offices; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.