KYIV, Ukraine – When the EU summit began in Brussels on Thursday night, an aide to Ukraine’s foreign minister tuned in to the matter on a laptop.
The minister, Dmytro Kuleba, whose left leg was in a tight red plaster after a basketball injury, was optimistic when he saw the European Council give his war-torn country something it had sought without success for years: the coveted status as a candidate to join blocks.
It was one of the best news for Ukraine, which is in its fourth month of war, since a successful counter-offensive pushed Russian soldiers away from the capital. Kuleba said the council’s move was “the most important step in overcoming the last psychological barrier in relations between Ukraine and the EU.”
Still, he acknowledged that his country would have to wait a long time before it could join the 27-member bloc. The action of the European Council, composed of the leaders of the member states, was just the first step in a years-long process, and Ukraine would have to make progress in fighting corruption and enforcing the rule of law in order to finally pass the pattern.
“Of course there will be negotiations, reforms here and in the EU,” he said. “I do not care. As long as the decision that Ukraine is Europe is taken, I’m fine. History has been made.”
Kuleba said that for decades, while Ukrainians fought for democracy in protest movements in 2004 and 2014, “Brussels and other European capitals still entertained this idea of a buffer zone of something in the middle, a bridge between Russia and the EU.”
In the final phase, he said, European leaders “flashed” unofficially to Ukrainian officials. “Like, ‘Guys, all will be well, it’s going to take years, but in the end you’ll be with us,” he said, “but they were still afraid to say it out loud.”
While Mr Kuleba was speaking in the interview, air raid sirens in Kiev lamented. An aide ran into the office to say there were 10 Russian missiles flying over Ukrainian airspace.
“I am not surprised that the Russians would fire anything against Kiev today,” Kuleba said, adding that today’s symbolism would not be lost on the Kremlin.
Kuleba, 41, a career diplomat, said he saw the EU as “the first attempt ever to build a liberal empire” on democratic principles, which contrasted with Russia’s aggression against former Soviet states under President Vladimir V. Putin.
“I understand that people do not like the word empire, but that’s how the story is written,” said Mr. Kuleba. “You have to show that different things of the same scale can be built on different principles: liberalism, democracy, respect for human rights and not on the principle of imposing a will on the rest.”
Kuleba said he was grateful to other Western allies, particularly the United States, for military and political support. He said, however, that he was hoping for a more explicit articulation of Washington’s war goals.
“We are still waiting for the moment when we hear a clear message from Washington that for Washington, the goal of this war is for Ukraine to win and for international law to be restored,” he said. “And Ukraine’s victory over Washington means restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”