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Live: EU path opens for Ukraine as battle for Donbas reaches ‘fearsome climax’

Ukraine is set to be accepted as a candidate to join the European Union on Thursday, a move expected to boost the country's morale as the battle with Russian troops for two cities in the east reached what one official called a "fiersome climax". Follow FRANCE 24’s liveblog for all the latest developments. All times Paris time (GMT+2).

9:35am: 'Wind of change' as path to EU opens for Ukraine

European leaders are set to formally accept Ukraine as a candidate to join the EU on Thursday in what the European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has hailed as a "wind of change" blowing across the continent.

"History is on the march," von der Leyen said ahead of a two-day summit that will kickstart the EU's most ambitious expansion since welcoming Eastern European states after the Cold War.

"I am not just talking about Putin's war of aggression," she said. "I am talking about the wind of change that once again blows across our continent. With their applications, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are telling us that they want change."

Although it will take Ukraine and Moldova years – and perhaps more than a decade – to qualify for membership, the Brussels summit decision will be a symbolic step that signals the EU's intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.

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"This is like going into the light from the darkness," Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday, welcoming the bloc's expected green light.

6:14am: Battle for Donbas reaching ‘fearsome climax’, Ukraine says

The fight for the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in Ukraine’s Luhansk region is “entering a sort of fearsome climax”, said Oleksy Arestovych, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Russia is seeking to capture both Luhansk and Donetsk, which make up the Donbas region – the nation’s industrial heartland.

“We must free our land and achieve victory, but more quickly, a lot more quickly,” Zelensky said in a video address released early Thursday, reiterating Ukrainian demands for larger and faster weapons.

“There were massive air and artillery strikes in Donbas. The occupier’s goal here is unchanged, they want to destroy the entire Donbas step-by-step,” he said.

“This is why we again and again emphasise the acceleration of arms deliveries to Ukraine. What is quickly needed is parity on the battlefield in order to halt this diabolical armada and push it beyond Ukraine’s borders.”

On the diplomatic front, European leaders on Thursday are expected to formally set Ukraine on the long road to EU membership at a summit in Brussels. Though mainly symbolic, the move may help lift Ukrainians’ morale after four months of bloody conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions and destroyed cities.

5:21am: Russia seeks new fuel markets in Africa, Middle East as Europe turns away

Russia is increasing gasoline and naphtha supplies to Africa and the Middle East as it struggles to sell fuel in Europe, while Asia is already taking bigger volumes of Russian crude, Refinitiv Eikon data showed and sources told Reuters.

The development is likely to increase competition for Asian customers between Russia and other big fuel exporters – Saudi Arabia and the United States – which are the top three suppliers to Asia.

The European Union has slowly reduced imports of Russian crude and fuel since March and agreed a full embargo that will take effect by the end of the year.

Asian buyers have stepped in to rapidly increase purchases of Russian crude, even though Asia is not a natural market for Russian fuel because Asia refines more oil than it needs and is a net fuel exporter.

That makes finding new outlets such as Africa and the Middle East paramount for Russia to protect its global market share and avert a deeper decline in oil exports and output.

“Africa and the Middle East seem to be main options for Russian oil product suppliers, so we expect more shipments there in the second half of the year as EU embargo gets closer,” a trader involved in Russian oil product trading told Reuters.

Zelensky tells African Union that sanctions on Russia are meant to prevent Moscow from 'reducing [Ukrainians] to slaves'.

3:18am: Rights groups call on Biden to negotiate for WNBA star Griner’s release

A coalition of human rights groups on Wednesday called on US President Joe Biden to “make a deal” to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner who has been detained in Russia for months.

Griner was taken into custody at a Moscow airport on February 17 when a search of her luggage allegedly revealed multiple cannabis oil vape cartridges. She could face up to 10 years in prison.

Last week her pre-trial detention was extended to July 2.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke via telephone on Wednesday evening with Cherelle Griner, the wife of the two-time Olympic champion, a senior State Department official said, without giving details on the content of the call.

1:52am: Russian strikes hit school, grain facilities in Mykolaiv

The Russian defence ministry claimed responsibility in a briefing Wednesday for a missile strike it said killed a number of Ukrainian troops in the southern city of Mykolaiv.

Ukrainian officials said seven Russian missiles had struck the port city, killing at least one person and causing several major fires. Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych told Ukrainian television that the strike hit two firms and a school, sparking a blaze that authorities could not put out.

The operators of two grain storage facilities, global grain traders Bunge and Viterra, confirmed that their facilities had been hit.

12:11am: G7 summit to announce measures increasing ‘pressure on Russia’, US official says

Leaders at the upcoming G7 summit in Germany will announce new measures aimed at pressuring Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, a senior US official said Wednesday.

“We will roll out a concrete set of proposals to increase pressure on Russia,” the official said. US President Joe Biden flies Saturday to join the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan at the summit in Bavaria.

The club of wealthy democracies is at the heart of a fierce economic and diplomatic campaign to punish Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February and continues to wage battles across the pro-Western country’s eastern region, as well as occupying swaths of the south.

After attending the G7 summit from Sunday to Tuesday, Biden will fly to Madrid for a summit of the NATO military alliance next week.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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