Ukraine Moves Closer to EU Membership After a Decade of War

Yehor Sobolev, a veteran of the 2014 revolution who is now fighting Russian forces, understands the significance of Kyiv’s decade-long pursuit of European Union membership better than most. Having championed tough reforms as a lawmaker after the pro-democracy uprising 10 years ago, he says he will watch with pride from the front lines as formal accession talks begin on Tuesday.

“We Ukrainians know how to fulfill our dreams,” said the 47-year-old deputy commander of a special army unit.

The initiation of talks, although largely symbolic, is a pivotal step for a nation that has shed blood and implemented necessary reforms in its quest for membership.

“Ukraine is returning to Europe, where it has belonged for centuries, as a full-fledged member of the European community,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated on Friday.

Kyiv submitted its application to join the EU days after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. It views membership as validation of its fight to embrace European values.

However, a lengthy path to accession lies ahead, requiring Ukraine to overhaul a bureaucracy still burdened by remnants of the Soviet era.

The task will be complicated by the ongoing war with Russia, which shows no signs of ending. Ukrainian towns and cities remain under constant threat of Russian airstrikes, which have claimed the lives of numerous civilians and soldiers, displaced millions from their homes, and damaged critical infrastructure and energy systems.

In many ways, Sobolev’s journey mirrors Ukraine’s trajectory over the past decade.

He was a prominent figure in the Maidan revolution that toppled a Russia-backed leader after protests sparked by his broken promise to foster closer ties with the EU.

Sobolev later contributed to legislation that established the foundation for Ukraine’s anti-corruption infrastructure, crucial in securing financial aid and support for Kyiv’s integration with the EU.

He also co-authored a law aimed at eliminating vestiges of Ukraine’s Soviet legacy and Russian influence by paving the way for the renaming of thousands of streets, towns, and cities, and the removal of monuments.

In 2021, Sobolev donned a uniform and rose through the ranks of the Ukrainian army, from a regular soldier to an officer, as Russia expanded a war that Kyiv claims began in 2014 with Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula and the instigation of an insurgency in the east.

“The top corrupt officials that we dealt with on the Maidan are the same kinds of leaders of the ‘Russian world’ like (President Vladimir) Putin,” he said.

“So for me it’s one war.”

The accession talks are scheduled to commence at a ministerial meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday, just days before Hungary, which has closer ties to Russia than other member states, assumes the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.

Ukraine cleared initial hurdles to accession in December by demonstrating progress in combating corruption and reforming its judiciary, among other areas the EU considers fundamental.

Now, it must develop a more detailed plan to achieve lasting results, which will be evaluated based on a set of benchmarks, according to Leonid Litra of the New Europe Centre, a think tank in Kyiv.

Later, the process will move on to fields ranging from agriculture and taxation to addressing climate change.

“If you want to have a merit-based and predictable process, you need to get a very clear to-do list,” he said.

Sobolev, a father of four, acknowledges that the road ahead will not be easy, citing entrenched old mentalities in some segments of society.

However, he believes Ukrainians are likely to become “much more serious students” of good governance as the prospect of joining the 27-nation bloc becomes more tangible.

“In this sense, war forces a society to grow up,” he said.