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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has hailed Brussels' support for his embattled country's European Union bid as a "historic" achievement.
The European Commission recommended Ukraine and Moldova be granted European Union candidate status, a move that marks the start of what will likely be a long journey toward full EU integration.
The recommendation, announced by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on June 17, will be discussed by leaders of the 27-nation bloc during a summit next week in Brussels. Launching accession talks requires unanimous approval from all member countries.
The unprecedented move by the European body comes as Kyiv fights a devastating war against Russia, which launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor on February 24 that has killed tens of thousands of people and caused huge material destruction.
Even though EU membership could still be years away, Zelenskiy, in his nightly video address, called the decision a "historic achievement" and said it would "certainly bring our victory closer" against Russia.
"Ukrainian institutions maintain resilience even in conditions of war. Ukrainian democratic habits have not lost their power even now," Zelenskiy said late on June 17.
Announcing the move, Von der Leyen hailed Ukrainians' attachment to European values and their sacrifices in the war against Russia's unprovoked invasion.
"We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us the European dream," von der Leyen said at a press conference in Brussels.
In a largely symbolic move, Zelenskiy also announced that Ukraine would be scrapping visa-free entry for Russians from next month.
"According to a decision that is planned by the Cabinet of Ministers, Ukraine will introduce a visa regime for Russian citizens from July 1, 2022," he said.
In Chisinau, Moldovan President Maia Sandu also hailed the European Commission's announcement, pledging that Moldovans will "work hard" to achieve ultimate membership in the EU.
"The recommendation is based on the understanding that our country would put more efforts in such key areas as justice reform, fight against corruption, public administration, and human rights," Sandu said.
"This is an important moment for the future of the Republic of Moldova, and this is the hope our citizens need," she said on Telegram, adding that "we know that the process will be difficult, but we are determined to follow this path."
The commission said another aspirant that submitted its membership this spring, Georgia, would only receive candidate status once it met certain conditions.
"It should be granted candidate status once a number of priorities have been addressed," the commission said in a statement.
"To succeed, the country must now come together politically, to design a clear path toward structural reform and the European Union — a path that concretely sets out the necessary reforms, brings on board civil society, and benefits from broad political support," von der Leyen said at the news conference.
In reaction to the announcement, the Kremlin said that it was closely following Ukraine's efforts to become an EU member.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the issue "requires our heightened attention, because we are all aware of the intensification of discussions in Europe on the subject of strengthening the defense component of the EU."
"There are various transformations that we are observing in the most careful way," he told a telephone briefing with journalists.
Brussel's groundbreaking decision was largely expected after it was recommended by the leaders of the EU's largest three economies during a visit on June 16 to the Ukrainian capital.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said after a meeting with Zelenskiy that they were in favor of Ukraine receiving "immediate" candidate status.
The visit carried heavy symbolism for the EU's backing of Zelenskiy, who has called on the European Union to offer his nation membership through a shortened procedure that would amount to a “powerful response” to Russia’s unprovoked invasion.
Zelenskiy submitted Ukraine's bid for EU membership shortly after the Russian invasion began on February 24, with Moldova and Georgia following suit immediately afterward.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak, Reuters, AP, and AFP
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