BRUSSELS — Ukrainian officials have a long list of requests for their European allies this week: fighter jets and other heavy weaponry to fend off a looming Russian offensive, European Union membership within a few years, legal mechanisms to hold Russians to account, and a plan to use seized Russian assets for reconstruction.
But a delegation of senior E.U. officials that arrived Thursday in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, is unlikely to offer concrete promises on any of these. Instead, an unusual wartime summit is expected to yield just a statement lauding Ukraine’s efforts and urging the country to continue reforms, as well as progress on issues such as roaming-free mobile access. That, and photo ops.
E.U. officials cast the meeting on Friday itself as an act of solidarity that signals European commitment and sends a message to Moscow. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said showing up in wartime Kyiv shows that the E.U. understands “the price Ukraine pays.”
But the gap between Ukrainian hopes and E.U. capability will be on full display.
“This summit, politically, is about the E.U. projecting that it is still kind of relevant and going to be a key arbiter of Ukraine’s future,” said Eoin Drea, a researcher at the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, the think tank of the center-right European People’s Party. “It can’t do that militarily — it does not have the capacity — but it can do that politically and economically.”
Some of the political and economic promises — particularly in terms of E.U. membership — feel rather distant as the fighting rages on.
E.U. officials “have created expectations, especially when it comes to accession, that are not in reach, to be honest,” said an E.U. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
“It’s nice to have a nice story,” the diplomat continued. “But you also have to manage expectations to avoid future conflict.”
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly one year ago, the E.U. has mounted a surprisingly unified response, hitting Moscow with successive rounds of sanctions, lending money to help keep the state running and, in June, granting the country “candidate status” to join the E.U. — all welcome developments for Kyiv.
But as the war nears the one-year mark, with Ukrainian forces fighting to push back the Russians in the south and east and Moscow continuing to shell civilians, Ukraine is primarily focused on lobbying the United States and other NATO allies for the sophisticated weaponry required to shift the balance on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, the E.U. is pressing Kyiv to work through the extensive bureaucratic steps necessary to join the bloc. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signaled Tuesday ahead of Friday’s E.U. summit that reforms were coming. “We are preparing new reforms in Ukraine: reforms that will change the social, legal and political reality in many ways, making it more human, transparent and effective,” he said in his Tuesday evening speech.
On Wednesday, Kyiv announced a major anti-corruption sweep, including investigations and dismissals of senior government officials.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday that she was “comforted” by Ukraine’s recent anti-corruption efforts. She also announced the creation an International Center for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression in Ukraine, to be based in The Hague. “The perpetrator must be held accountable,” she said.
Though the 27-member bloc is broadly supportive of Ukraine, it remains split on the idea of fast-track E.U. membership, with a handful of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters backing an accelerated timeline and many others opposing the idea.
Ukraine has long pushed for a path to E.U. membership, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added a sense of urgency. In the months after Russia’s full-scale invasion, the idea of granting Ukraine candidate status still seemed far-fetched.
A combination of Zelensky’s emotional appeals, assertive Ukrainian diplomacy and widespread outrage over Russian atrocities moved the needle. In June, von der Leyen announced that Brussels would endorse Ukraine’s candidacy. Member states fell in line.
“Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” she said then. “We want them to live with us the European dream.”
But E.U. leaders, officials and diplomats say that Ukraine’s European dream could be many years — if not decades — away. Turkey applied in 1987 and has been a candidate since 1999. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and others have been in talks with the E.U. for years.
In private conversations, it is clear that the cost of reconstruction weighs heavily on the minds of European leaders. If Ukraine joined the bloc, it would become the E.U.’s fifth-most-populous nation and the poorest. In 2021, Ukraine’s gross domestic product was $4,827 per capita, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, compared to $11,683 for the current poorest, Bulgaria — and that was before the war.
Nearly a year of Russian attacks, meanwhile, have crushed Ukraine’s economy, disrupting trade, shattering infrastructure and shrinking GDP by roughly 30 percent in 2022, according to Ukrainian estimates.
Podolyak, the Zelensky adviser, said Ukraine would use the summit to present its progress on the “great Talmud of tasks” it has been assigned to join the E.U.
He said that he expected Ukraine to formally join the E.U. and NATO under an accelerated procedure shortly following the war’s end — “literally three months after the end of the war.”
Some E.U. officials and member states hope to use frozen Russian assets to rebuild Ukraine, but there is little agreement on how to do so legally. One thing they do agree on: Europe should not foot the whole bill.
When speaking privately, E.U. diplomats invariably raise the issue of corruption, praising Kyiv’s efforts to reform amid a still-raging war, but stressing that the country still has a long way to go.
News that several senior Ukrainian officials, including an adviser to Zelensky, were removed from their jobs last week will do little to ease these concerns despite the country’s recent efforts.
“In Brussels in particular, they are very fond of the grand rhetoric of supporting Ukraine and democracy, which is fine,” said Drea. “But unfortunately the political realities can be different.”
David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.