EU to give fast-tracked opinion on Ukraine membership bid

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The European Commission will meet Friday to give its fast-tracked opinion on Ukraine's bid for EU candidacy, a step closer to membership for the country a day after the bloc's most powerful leaders visited Kyiv as it battles Russia's invasion.

Never before has an opinion been given so quickly on EU candidacy, which must be approved by all 27 member states.

The opinion will serve as a basis for discussion at next week's EU summit, where leaders are expected to approve Ukraine's candidate status, but with stern conditions attached, and membership may take years or even decades.

France, Germany, Italy and Romania are all in favour of Ukraine receiving "immediate" candidate status, French President Emmanuel Macron said in Kyiv Thursday.

Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian premier Mario Draghi arrived in Ukraine by train and headed to the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, scene of fierce battles early in the brutal war.

Later joined by Romania's President Klaus Iohannis, they met Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been lobbying allies for more and faster weapons deliveries and the promise of a European future.

"The most important message of our visit is that Italy wants Ukraine in the EU," Draghi said at a joint press conference.

Scholz said Ukraine "belongs in the European family" and that Berlin would continue to send Kyiv weapons "for as long as it is needed."

After meeting the visiting leaders, Zelensky said he explained to "our essential needs in the field of defence".

"We are expecting new deliveries, above all heavy weapons, modern artillery, anti-aircraft defence systems," he said, even as Macron said France would send six Caesar self-propelled howitzers to add to the 12 already deployed on Ukraine's eastern front.

Zelensky promised Ukraine was ready to put in the work to become an EU member.

"Ukraine has gotten the closest to EU it has ever been in the history of its independence," he said in his nightly address.

- 'Dreadful mistake' -

The Jacques Delors Institute think tank director said he expects a positive opinion on Ukraine's EU status, but with conditions and a deadline.

"This is a very delicate exercise for the Commission because it cannot be less demanding for Ukraine than for other countries for which it has given a favorable opinion in the past. Its credibility requires the maintenance of high standards," Sebastien Maillard said.

Russia has already "strategically lost" its war with Ukraine, suffering heavy losses and strengthening NATO, the UK's chief of defence staff said in an interview published Friday.

"This is a dreadful mistake by Russia. Russia will never take control of Ukraine," said Tony Radakin, the country's highest-ranking military officer, adding it would emerge a "more diminished power".

The admiral said Russian President Vladimir Putin may achieve "tactical successes" in the weeks to come, but had sacrificed a quarter of his country's army power for "tiny" gains and was running out of troops and high-tech missiles.

"Russia is failing."

- Fuel and food prices -

Moscow is stepping up energy pressure on Europe, with Russian gas giant Gazprom on Thursday defending cuts while prices soared.

EU countries are rushing to reduce dependency on Russian energy but are divided about imposing a natural gas embargo as several member states are heavily reliant on Moscow.

Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said that the state-run company will play by its own rules after cutting daily gas supplies to Germany and Italy.

Draghi and Zelensky both accused Russia of intentionally limiting supply, with the Italian leader accusing Gazprom of "lies" and of using its energy dominace for "political" ends.

"We are seeing a political use of gas, just as we have seen a political use of wheat," he said in reference to the millions of tons of wheat currently stuck in Ukrainian ports.

He spoke as the United States also called on Moscow to open the ports and allow the grain to be exported.

"We shouldn't be using food as a weapon," US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters at the United Nations.

With global grain prices soaring and importers in the Middle East and Africa facing supply shortfalls, Moscow has demanded that economic sanctions on it be lifted in exchange for allowing the exports.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine remained focused on the industrial city of Severodonetsk, where Russian forces edge closer to control after weeks of battle.

Regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said Thursday around 10,000 civilians remain trapped there, out of a pre-war population of some 100,000.

Also on Thursday, Washington urged Russia to treat any American volunteers captured while fighting alongside Ukrainian troops as prisoners of war guaranteed humane treatment.

The State Department also said a third American was believed to be missing, in addition to two military veterans who were reportedly seized by Russian forces last week.

Also on Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) told Russia to prevent the execution of a Moroccan man sentenced to death along with two British men for fighting on behalf of Ukrainian forces.

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