E.U. Accession Talks Lift Morale in Ukraine

With his soldiers fighting in snowy trenches and his country’s cities under attack from Russian missiles, President Volodymyr Zelensky returned to Ukraine on Friday from a flurry of diplomatic meetings without major aid packages from the United States and Europe. But the Ukrainian leader came home with the promise that Ukraine would begin negotiations to join the European Union.

Political infighting in Washington and the European Union have blocked further aid to Ukraine. Early on Friday, E.U. leaders conceded they would not be able to pass a multiyear, 50-billion-euro, or $54.5 billion, aid package over the objections of Hungary.

Ukraine relies on foreign aid for about half of its federal budget and most of the ammunition and weaponry sustaining its army, meaning any substantial delays in Western support could imperil the country’s ability to fight off Russia. Key decisions on aid next year by the United States and European Union, Ukraine’s two largest military and financial backers, may now be pushed back until January, even as Kyiv’s forces remain stalled on the battlefield.

Mr. Zelensky did receive a glimmer of good news on Thursday when the European Union approved the start of negotiations for Ukraine to join the bloc, a longstanding ambition of Kyiv’s as it moves to align itself with Western Europe. “Many people in Ukraine are now in high spirits, and this is important, this is motivation,” he said in his overnight address.

But joining the bloc is a long and demanding process that can take more than a decade, even for Ukraine, which has benefited from an accelerated path to membership. And Kyiv’s failure to secure new aid packages from its allies this week leave it with urgent short term challenges.

Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former Ukrainian minister of the economy, said he expected that both the E.U. and the U.S. would soon approve sending more military and financial assistance to Kyiv. “Ukraine will hold,” he said, reflecting the mood of a majority of Ukrainians who do not believe that the West will abandon them.

But Mr. Mylovanov acknowledged that longer delays would present Ukraine with major challenges to sustain its fight against Russia and keep its economy afloat, and as they began the work day on Friday, Ukrainians lamented the slow progress on securing more support.

“They could give us more help right now, but somehow they don’t,” Svetlana Vasylik, a 29-year-old events manager, said in central Kyiv, noting that opening accession talks with the European Union would not result in concrete changes in the short term. She said that her father, fighting on the frontline, told her that his unit was constantly lacking ammunition.

Mr. Zelensky’s struggles stand in contrast to that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whose army is pressuring Ukraine on the front line and whose economy has mostly withstood western sanctions. On Thursday, Mr. Putin exuded confidence in his annual news conference, and suggesting that the “freebies” from the West that were sustaining Kyiv would soon run dry.

Ukrainian officials have warned that delays in Western aid would embolden Russia and raise the risk of costly setbacks. That has been a recurring theme from Kyiv since the early stages of the war — that its allies’ cautious approach in providing weapons put it at a disadvantage against a much stronger foe — including when Ukraine was urging the West to provide heavy and rocket artillery last year and tanks this year.

Mr. Zelensky, whose visit to Washington this week failed to secure a pledge for more aid, said he nevertheless expected the U.S. Congress to soon “make the necessary decision” on a $64 billion military and financial assistance package. Republicans have said they will not approve the aid without a compromise from Democrats on immigration policies and security on the southern U.S. border.

Shorter delays will not cripple Ukraine’s finances and military. Funding remains at the Pentagon to transfer weaponry into the new year, and previously approved military assistance is arriving. Still, artillery crews along the southeastern front have said they must ration shells.

In the absence of substantive new aid commitments from the West, Mr. Zelensky welcomed the European Union promise to open negotiations on Ukraine’s joining the bloc, which follows through on pledges made soon after Russia’s invasion.

On Friday morning, several residents of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, described the prospect of joining the European Union as a piece of good news in an otherwise somber period for the country.

“I feel elated today,” Oleksander Baldiniuk, 43, said Friday morning as he stood near the Golden Gate, a reconstructed gateway that marked the entrance to the city in medieval times. “This war is also a psychological war, and this is good for our mood.”

Asked for his reaction, one Kyiv resident, hurrying to work, snapped: “A Christmas gift!”

Early in meetings on Thursday it looked like the accession talks would fail. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, said he would veto the move, arguing that the entry would be bad for the bloc. In the end, at the urging of Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, Mr. Orban left the room, abstaining from the vote and clearing the path for Ukraine.

But hours later it was Mr. Orban, considered President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s closest ally in Europe, who blocked a new €50-billion aid package for Kyiv.

On Friday, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, downplayed Kyiv’s ambitions to join the bloc and called the move by the E.U. leaders “a fully politicized decision” that could ultimately destabilize it. He asserted that neither Ukraine nor Moldova, which also wants to join, met the required criteria, but added that as a European neighbor of the bloc, Moscow was “monitoring it closely.”

Many in Ukraine believe that only their country’s integration into the European Union will provide them with guarantees of continued support.

Ukraine’s accession would also present major challenges, including integrating a population with a standard of living that is a fraction of the E.U. average and dealing with an agricultural powerhouse that could derail the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, said his country now had “a window of opportunity to move ahead” and reform the country as quickly as possible before future national elections in Europe give way to new governments that may be less willing to integrate a large, poor and conflict-torn nation.

After leaving Washington empty-handed, Mr. Zelensky attended a summit of Nordic leaders and received pledges of about $1 billion in military aid from Denmark and new assistance from Norway. Mr. Zelensky said Finland, Sweden and Spain were preparing new aid. On Thursday, Germany announced that it had handed over a second Patriot air defense system to Ukraine.

Maintaining air defense capabilities is pivotal for Ukraine’s military and economy, to thwart near nightly Russian missile and drone attacks that can hobble the army’s logistics and plunge cities into blackouts. Through the week as Congress and E.U. leaders considered aid, Russia fired multiple volleys of exploding drones, cruise and ballistic missiles.

Falling debris from missiles intercepted by Ukraine’s Western-provided air defenses over Kyiv wounded dozens of people on Wednesday.

Nathalie Loiseau, the chair of the subcommittee on security and defense in the European Parliament, said in an interview that a possible decline in American support has resulted in a growing “sense of urgency” in Europe to help Ukraine beat back Russia. “Strengthening our military assistance to Kyiv — that’s what counts,” she said.

E.U. institutions have now committed more than $90 billion in financial, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, according to data from the Kiel Institute — the largest package, ahead of the United States.

“It’s a question of security for us,” Ms. Loiseau added, noting that Ukrainian troops were trying to hold off an aggressive Russian regime that one day may turn its sights on other European countries. “Ukraine is our security guarantee.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from London and Daria Mitiuk from Kyiv.