Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Wednesday hailed the European Union's expected offer of candidate status for his battle-weary nation as Russian forces pounded Ukraine's second-biggest city Kharkiv and the eastern Donbas region.
European leaders will formally set Ukraine on the long road to EU membership at a summit in Brussels on Thursday. Though mainly symbolic, the move will help lift national morale at a very difficult time in a four-month conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions, and flattened towns and cities.
The war has also had a massive impact on the global economy and European security arrangements, driving up gas, oil, and food prices, pushing the EU to reduce its heavy reliance on Russian energy, and prompting Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.
The EU will temporarily shift back to coal to cope with dwindling Russian gas flows without derailing longer-term climate goals, an EU official said on Wednesday, as a tight gas market and soaring prices set off a race for alternative fuels.
Zelenskiy said he had spoken to 11 European Union leaders on Wednesday about Ukraine's candidacy and will make more calls on Thursday. He said earlier he believed all 27 EU countries will support Ukraine's candidate status.
"We deserve it," Zelenskiy told crowds in Amsterdam via video link.
Diplomats say it will take Ukraine a decade or more to meet the criteria for joining the EU. But EU leaders say the bloc must make a gesture that recognizes Ukraine's sacrifice.
With its forces running low on ammunition as a fierce war of attrition grinds on in the Donbas, Ukraine has more urgent priorities in the near term.
'NO LETUP' IN SHELLING CIVILIANS
The Russian strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday on Kharkiv, near the Russian border, were the worst for weeks in an area where normal life had been returning since Ukraine pushed Moscow's forces back last month.
Kyiv characterized the strikes, which reportedly killed at least 20 people, as a bid to force Ukraine to pull resources from the main battlefields in the Donbas to protect civilians.
Oleh Synehubov, governor of Kharkiv region, said Russians continued shelling residential districts of Kharkiv and towns within Kharkiv region.
"There is no letup in the shelling of civilians by the Russian occupiers," he wrote on the Telegram messaging app. "This is evidence that we cannot expect the same scenario as in Chernihiv or Kyiv, with Russian forces withdrawing under pressure."
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video address that Russian forces were hitting Kharkiv "with the aim of terrorizing the population" and forcing Ukraine to divert troops.
Zelenskiy has warned the fighting may escalate before the EU summit. Russia has long opposed closer links between Ukraine, a former Soviet state, and Western clubs like the EU and the NATO military alliance.
"There were massive air and artillery strikes in Donbas," he said in a video address released early Thursday, adding Russia wants "to destroy the entire Donbas step by step."
In an evening military update, Ukraine's General Staff catalogued continued heavy Russian shelling of Kharkiv and other towns and villages in its vicinity and air strikes on the devastated city of Sievierodonetsk, among others.
Luhansk's regional governor, Serhiy Gaidai, said in an online post Wednesday evening that Russian forces continue to build up reserves in Sievierodonetsk in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian troops.
He rejected Russian claims that its military already controls the city. "Battles are continuing," he told Ukrainian Television. "Russian forces do not have full control."
Moscow says Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk, scene of the heaviest recent fighting, are trapped. It ordered them last week to surrender or die after the last bridge over the Siverskyi Donets river was destroyed.
However, Oleksandr Ratushniak, a freelance photographer who reached Sievierodonetsk with Ukrainian forces in recent days, filmed reinforcements crossing in an inflatable raft.
Inside Russia, a fire tore through an oil refinery just 8 km (5 miles) from the frontier with Donbas territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists, after what the refinery described as a cross-border attack on Wednesday by two drones.
There was no immediate Ukrainian comment on the strike, which suspended production at the Novoshakhtinsk refinery.
Ukraine generally does not comment on reports of attacks on Russian infrastructure near the border, which it has called "karma" for Russian attacks on Ukraine.
Wednesday was the "Day of Remembrance and Sorrow" in Russia and Ukraine, commemorating the day Hitler's Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin laid flowers at a memorial flame for the dead.
World War Two, which killed 27 million Soviet citizens, plays a prominent role in Russian commentary on the Ukraine invasion, which Putin calls a "special operation" to root out "Nazis." Kyiv and the West call that a baseless justification for a war to wipe out Ukraine's identity as a separate nation.
In Paris, Reporters Without Borders said on Wednesday that Ukrainian photographer Maksim Levin was "executed in cold blood" alongside his friend Oleksiy Chernyshov by Russian forces north of Kyiv on March 13, citing overwhelming evidence. Russia's defense ministry did not immediately comment.