Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed Brussels’ support for his embattled country’s bid to join the European Union as a “historic” achievement.

The European Commission has recommended that Ukraine and Moldova gain EU candidate status, a move that marks the start of what is likely to be a long journey towards full EU integration.

The recommendation, announced by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on June 17, will be discussed by leaders of the bloc of 27 at a summit next week in Brussels. The launch of accession negotiations requires the unanimous approval of all member countries.

The European body’s unprecedented move comes as Kyiv wages a devastating war against Russia, which on February 24 launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor that has killed tens of thousands of people and caused massive material destruction. .

Even though joining the EU could still take years, Zelenskiy, in his nightly video speech, called the decision a “historic achievement” and said it would “certainly bring our victory closer” against Russia.

“Ukrainian institutions maintain their resilience even under war conditions. Ukrainian democratic habits have not lost their power even now,” Zelenskiy said late June 17.

Announcing the decision, Von der Leyen hailed Ukrainians’ attachment to European values ​​and their sacrifices in the war against the unprovoked invasion of Russia.

“We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live the European dream with us,” von der Leyen told a press conference in Brussels.

In a largely symbolic move, Zelenskiy also announced that Ukraine would abolish visa-free entry for Russians from next month.

“According to a decision 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 welcomed the European Commission’s announcement, promising that Moldovans will “work hard” to achieve full EU membership.

“The recommendation is based on the understanding that our country would put more effort into key areas such as justice reform, anti-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 that our citizens need,” she said on Telegram, adding that “we know the process will be difficult. , but we are determined to follow this path”. .”

The commission said another candidate that submitted for membership this spring, Georgia, would only receive candidate status once it met certain conditions.

“He is expected to gain candidate status once a number of priorities have been addressed,” the commission said in a statement.

A man in Tbilisi attends a rally in support of Geogia’s bid for EU membership on June 16.

“To succeed, the country must now unite politically, to chart a clear path towards structural reform and the European Union – a path that concretely defines the necessary reforms, involves civil society and enjoys broad political support” , he added. von der Leyen said at the press conference.

Reacting to the announcement, the Kremlin said it was closely following Ukraine’s efforts to become a member of the EU.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the issue “requires our increased attention, as we are all aware of the intensification of discussions in Europe about strengthening the defense component of the EU.”

“There are various transformations that we are watching most carefully,” he said in a phone briefing with reporters.

Brussels’ groundbreaking decision was widely expected after it was recommended by the leaders of the EU’s three biggest economies during a June 16 visit 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 being given “immediate” candidate status.

The visit was fraught with symbols of EU support for Zelenskiy, who called on the European Union to offer his country membership through a shortened procedure that would amount to a ‘powerful response’ to the unprovoked invasion of Russia.

Zelenskiy presented Ukraine’s application for EU membership shortly after the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, followed immediately by Moldova and Georgia.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak of RFE/RL, Reuters, AP and AFP