E.U. has backed candidate status for Ukraine. Here’s what that means.

European leaders follow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of a news conference in Kyiv on June 16. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — European leaders meeting Thursday formally backed E.U. candidate status for Ukraine, in a historic moment for the bloc and a major morale boost for Kyiv amid war with Russia.

“Ukraine’s future is within the EU,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on Twitter after the decision, describing it as a “unique and historical moment” in Kyiv’s relations with the bloc.

Ukraine has long pushed for a path to membership, but Russia’s invasion added a new sense of urgency. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, Zelensky pleaded for special consideration, an idea backed by some member states and strongly opposed by others.

In a matter of months, Zelensky’s personal appeals, dogged Ukrainian diplomacy and support from high-profile E.U. officials and leaders have made what seemed like a long shot feel almost inevitable. Heading into Thursday’s summit, all 27 members states expressed support for the idea of granting Ukraine candidate status, according to officials and diplomats, with conditions to be met later.

Support for Ukrainian candidacy does not grant membership but would be a first step on the long and difficult road to joining the bloc. Full membership would still be years or even decades away.

Moldova was also granted candidacy Thursday.

Ukraine’s push has revived the enlargement debate more broadly. Georgia will be considered after additional conditions are met. “It is time to acknowledge that the future of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia lies within the E.U,” European Council President Charles Michel wrote in an invitation letter to the meetings.

What is NATO, and why isn’t Ukraine a member?

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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