EU approves Ukraine candidacy for membership; Ukraine admits 'threat of a tactical Russian victory' in Donbas: June 23 recap

·4 min read

Editor's note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Thursday, June 23. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Friday, June 24, as Russia's invasion continues.

The European Union leadership approved Ukraine's candidacy for membership Thursday, starting the embattled nation on a yearslong path toward cementing a closer relationship with the West as it attempts to distance itself from its Russian invaders.

"Historic agreement, historic decision," European Council President Charles Michel tweeted after the decision was announced on the first day of an EU leaders summit in Belgium.

Ukraine has already implemented about 70% of EU rules, norms and standards, European officials have said. But they warned that the country still needs political and economic reforms, pointing to corruption. EU candidate status doesn't guarantee Ukraine membership and does not provide the military security provided by NATO membership. Still, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elated.

"Sincerely commend EU leaders’ decision at #EUCO to grant a candidate status," he tweeted. "It’s a unique and historical moment."

The EU also granted candidate status to Moldova, a tiny, non-NATO country that borders Ukraine.

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Latest developments:

►The U.S. will send $450 million more in military aid to Ukraine, including more medium-range rocket systems, officials said Thursday.

►Nike announced it will fully shut down operations in Russia after initially suspending its company-owned business three months ago. "Our priority is to ensure we are fully supporting our employees while we responsibly scale down our operations over the coming months," the company said.

►Germany activated the second phase of its three-stage emergency plan for natural gas supplies Thursday, warning that winter energy supplies are a concern due to dwindling deliveries from Russia.

Russia's war in Ukraine entering new phase

After its early military humiliation, Russia has regrouped in Ukraine and focused its wrath in the east with relentless shelling – giving Moscow momentum as the war moves into a bleak new phase.

With its vast supply of artillery, armor and troops, Russia now has an edge, experts say. Combat in Ukraine has shifted to the eastern part of the country, its mineral-rich, industrial heartland. Russian-backed separatists have fought for control of the region, known as the Donbas, since 2014.

"About 20% of Ukrainian territory has de facto been annexed," said Seth Jones, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They’ve replaced currency with ruble in many areas, replaced the educational curriculum, including Russian history. The hand-picked local authorities are Russian."

But Ukraine still holds potent advantages, including a fierce will to fight and new Western weapons.

The direction of the conflict will likely come into clearer focus over the summer, when Russia is likely to attempt to consolidate its gains in the Donbas region. However, experts believe local resistance, the steady flow of Western arms and Russian incompetence suggest they'll have difficulty holding ground.

Read the key takeaways on the current state of the war here.

-Tom Vanden Brook

Russian forces make gains, could see 'tactical victory' soon

Surging Russian forces overwhelmed two more villages in eastern Ukraine on Thursday and closed in on the city of Lysychansk amid a slow but systematic advancement through the industrial heart of Ukraine.

Lysychansk and small areas of sister city Severodonetsk represent the last hurdle in Russia's quest to control the Luhansk region. The fall of Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka comes one day after Russia rolled into the villages of Pidlisne and Myrna Dolyna.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, acknowledged the "threat of a tactical Russian victory (in the region) is there, but they haven’t done it yet."

The regions of Luhansk and Donetsk make up the Donbas region, home of Russian separatist "republic." After its failure to take the capital of Kyiv in the early days of the war, Russia has made no secret of its redirected efforts to control the Donbas.

Ukraine: US missile systems promise 'summer will be hot' for Russians

U.S. high-mobility missile artillery systems (HIMARS) have arrived in Ukraine, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said. The Ukrainian military has already undergone special training for the weapons in Europe, he said.

The U.S. provided ammunition that can hit targets from more than 40 miles away – valuable, but not the longer-range missiles sought by Ukraine that could reach close to 200 miles.

"Thank you to my colleague and friend @SecDef Lloyd J. Austin III for these powerful tools!" Reznikov said on Twitter. "Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them."

Estonian PM Kaja Kallas says don’t sleep on Russia

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says the West shouldn’t underestimate Russia’s military capabilities in Ukraine, saying Moscow is in it for the long haul as the war enters its fifth month.

Kallas said Europe should ensure that those committing war crimes and attempted genocide are prosecuted, noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin escaped punishment for annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region that killed over 14,000 people even before this year’s war began.

“I’ve heard talks that, you know, there is no threat anymore because they have exhausted themselves. No, they haven’t,” she said of the Russian military, which failed to take Kyiv in the early stages of the war and is now concentrating its firepower in the east.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine recap: EU makes Ukraine a candidate for membership