Ukraine accepted as candidate for EU membership as Donbas battles rage
Kyiv's application to EU will be years-long process, but is seen as symbolic shift for bloc
Updates from Day 120 of the invasion
EU begins two-day summit, accepts Ukraine as a candidate for membership.
Competing claims over degree of control of Severodonetsk in the Donbas.
Ukraine President Zelensky took his message to Canadian students on Wednesday.
Germany triggers new stage in energy plan, warns rationing in winter possible.
The European Union has agreed to make Ukraine a candidate for EU membership, setting in motion a potentially years-long process that could pull the embattled country further away from Russia's influence and bind it more closely to the West.
Ukraine applied for EU membership less than a week after Moscow invaded on Feb. 24.
The decision by the leaders of the 27-nation bloc to grant Ukraine candidate status Thursday was uncharacteristically rapid for the EU. But the war and Ukraine's request for fast-track consideration lent urgency to its cause.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the move, calling it "a unique and historic moment" in relations with the EU.
"Ukraine's future is in the EU," he tweeted.
The EU also granted candidate status to Moldova, which borders Ukraine.
Gaining membership could take years or even decades. Countries must meet a detailed host of economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles.
Ukraine will have to curb government corruption and adopt other reforms.
'Fearsome climax' in Donbas: Ukraine official
Moscow's massive air and artillery attacks are aimed at destroying the entire Donbas region, Zelensky said in a video address on Thursday.
The war of attrition in the Donbas — Ukraine's industrial heartland — is most critical in the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which straddle the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk province.
The battle there is "entering a sort of fearsome climax," said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky.
Ukrainian forces were defending Severodonetsk and the nearby settlements of Zolote and Vovchoyrovka, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Gaidai said on Thursday, but Russian forces had captured Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka to the south.
Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a chemical plant in Severodonetsk while Ukraine and Russia dispute who controls the bombed-out city.
Moscow says Ukrainian forces in the city are surrounded and trapped. But Gaidai told Ukrainian Television on Wednesday that Russian forces did not have full control of Severodonetsk, but admitted troops there may have to retreat to new positions.
TASS news agency cited Russian-backed separatists saying Lysychansk was now surrounded and cut off from supplies after a road connecting the city to the town of Sieviersk was taken.
Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the report.
'Risk of full gas disruption': EU official
As well as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are also seeking to the join the EU in what would be its most ambitious expansion since welcoming Eastern European states after the Cold War.
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.
EU and Western leaders are also very concerned about global energy and food supplies in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine beginning Feb. 24.
"The risk of full gas disruption is now more real than ever before," said Frans Timmermans, the EU's climate policy chief, on Wednesday.
Russia may cut off gas to Europe entirely to bolster its political leverage, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its own statements on Wednesday, adding that leaders there needed to prepare now.
Several European countries have outlined measures to withstand a supply squeeze and avert winter energy shortages and an inflation spike that could test the continent's resolve to maintain sanctions on Russia.
Germany triggered the "alarm stage" of its emergency gas plan on Thursday in response to falling Russian supplies, but stopped short of allowing utilities to pass on soaring energy costs to customers in Europe's largest economy.
The measure is the latest escalation in a standoff between Europe and Moscow since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has exposed the bloc's dependence on Russian gas supplies and sparked a frantic search for alternative energy sources.
Energy rationing in Germany possible
The decision, announced by the economy minister, marks a stark shift especially for Germany, which has cultivated strong energy ties with Moscow.
"The cut in gas supplies is an economic attack on us by Putin," Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in a statement, adding Germans would have to reduce consumption. Gas rationing would hopefully be avoided but cannot be ruled out, Habeck said.
"Summer is here, a summer after a long period of the pandemic and people want to enjoy time outside and maybe without political misery for once. But winter will arrive," he added.
Russia has denied the gas supply reductions were premeditated, with state supplier Gazprom blaming a delay in return of serviced equipment caused by Western sanctions.
The second "alarm stage" of the three-stage emergency plan is activated when the German government sees a high risk of long-term supply shortages. It theoretically allows utilities to pass on high prices to industry and households and thereby help to lower demand.
In the second stage, the market is still able to function without the need for state intervention that would kick in the final emergency stage.
The supply cuts have also driven German companies to contemplate resorting to polluting forms of energy, such as coal, previously considered unthinkable due to pledges made at global climate summits.
With files from Reuters