KYIV, Ukraine — As the European Union summit began in Brussels on Thursday evening, an aide to Ukraine's foreign minister tuned into the proceedings on a laptop. The minister, Dmytro Kuleba, whose left leg was in a tight red cast after a basketball injury, was upbeat as he watched the European Council grant his country something it had been seeking without success for years: the coveted status as a candidate to join the bloc. Since a successful counteroffensive pushed Russian soldiers away from the capital, it was one of the best bits of news for Ukraine, which is in its fourth month of war. The move of the council was the most important step in overcoming the last psychological barrier in relations between the EU and Ukraine, according to Kuleba. He acknowledged that his country would have to wait a long time before it could join the 27-member bloc. The action by the European Council, composed of the leaders of the member states, was just the beginning of a long process, and Ukraine would have to make progress on combating corruption and enforcing the rule of law to pass through.
There will be talks, reforms here and in the European Union, he said. I don't care. I m fine as long as the decision is taken that Ukraine is Europe. History has been made. As Ukrainians fought for democracy in protest movements in 2004 and 2014, Brussels and other European capitals were still entertained by the idea of a buffer zone, a bridge between Russia and the E.U. In the last phase, he said that European leaders were unofficially winking at Ukrainian officials. Like, Guys, everything will be fine, it will take years, but in the end you will be with us, he said. They were still afraid to say it out loud. As Mr. Kuleba spoke in the interview, air raid sirens wailed in Kyiv. An aide ran into the office to say there were 10 Russian missiles flying above Ukrainian airspace.
Kuleba, 41, a career diplomat, has become one of the fiercest advocates for Ukraine on the world stage, arguing that NATO and the West should be doing more to fight Russia's invasion and casting the battle for Ukraine as a battle for democracy everywhere. He said that the decision of the European Council was a critical moment for Europe, and that the Russian invasion gave the European Union a renewed sense of common purpose. He said that the bloc needed to undergo a period of change and reform. Europe and the West as we know it, which is back on the world stage thanks to Ukraine, has to answer its own questions, he said. Today, the decision by the European Union is about the answer to one of the fundamental questions about the future of Europe. Kuleba said he sees the European Union as the first attempt to build a liberal empire on democratic principles, contrasting it with Russia's aggression toward former Soviet states under President Vladimir V. Putin. The people do not like the word empire, but this is how history is written, Mr. Kuleba said. You have to show that different things can be built on the same scale: liberalism, democracy, respect for human rights, and not on the principle of imposition of the will of one on the rest. He said that the European Union is expanding as a liberal empire of the 21st century, while Russia's influence is shrinking as a result of it being an empire. He said Ukraine had been dissolved into the Russian world at the end of the 17th century when it fell to Catherine the Great, but we survived it as a nation. We still speak our language, we still have our culture, we still have our identity. We have a struggle to come back to Europe.