EU officially grants Ukraine and Moldova candidate status to join the bloc

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The European Union on Thursday granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status to join the 27-member bloc. The news comes as the fight for two cities in Ukraine’s Luhansk region entered a "fearsome climax”, according to Ukrainian officials. Read about the day’s events as they unfolded on our liveblog. All times Paris time (GMT+2).

This live page is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

June 24, 12:24am: Hungary says no more EU sanctions on Russia needed, better to negotiate

The European Union should stop adding sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and instead push for a ceasefire and the start of negotiations, a senior aide to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday.

Speaking on the sidelines of a summit of EU leaders which granted Ukraine the status of a candidate to become a member of the EU, the aide said the more sanctions the EU adopted the more they hurt the bloc, while Russia survived.

“At the end of the day Europe will be on the losing side of this war because of the economic problems. Our recommendation would be that we should stop the sanction process,” Balazs Orban, not related to the prime minister, told Reuters in an interview.

Hungary is one of the most pro-Russian EU countries, heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil. Russia is also building a nuclear reactor for Hungary. Budapest had held up the latest package of sanctions against Moscow that included a ban on Russian oil imports until it negotiated an exemption for itself.

11:54pm: EU decision a ‘symbolic’ but crucial step toward Ukraine’s membership

The decision by European Union countries to grant Ukraine candidate status is the first step in a years-long process that does not always end in EU membership. But the move could nevertheless serve as a “beacon of hope to the people fighting in Ukraine right now, to crystallise what it is they’re fighting for”, says FRANCE 24’s Brussels correspondent Dave Keating.

9:02pm: France’s Macron says Ukraine’s EU candidacy sends ‘very strong signal’ to Russia

Granting EU candidacy to Ukraine sends a “very strong signal” to Russia that the bloc supports Kyiv’s pro-Western aspirations in the wake of Moscow’s invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday.

The French leader hailed the move as a sign of “a strong and united Europe” in the face of Russia’s aggression against its neighbour.

8:30pm: Zelensky hails EU decision to grant Ukraine candidate status a ‘unique and historic moment’

Only minutes after the European Union announced it had granted Ukraine candidate status to join the 27-member bloc, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the move as “a unique and historic moment”.

“Ukraine’s future is in the EU,” he tweeted.

8:28pm: EU grants Ukraine and Moldova candidate status to join bloc

EU leaders have accepted Ukraine and Moldova as membership candidates for the European Union, European Council President Charles Michel announced on Thursday.

“Agreement. #EUCO has just decided EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. A historic moment”, Michel said in a tweet referring to the European Council of EU leaders (EUCO).

Although it could take Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova more than a decade to qualify for membership, the decision at a two-day EU summit is a symbolic step that signals the bloc’s intentions.

The decision is also sure to anger Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has opposed Ukraine's attempts to move closer to Europe.

6:55pm: US expected to send $450 million in security aid to Ukraine

The United States is expected to provide an additional $450 million in security assistance to Ukraine, including more long-range rocket systems, two US officials told Reuters on Thursday.

One of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said an announcement was expected later on Thursday and the latest package is expected to include four additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).

5:16pm: Germany raises gas alert level after Russia cuts supply

Germany moved closer to rationing natural gas on Thursday as it raised the alert level under an emergency plan after Russia slashed supplies to the country.

Triggering the “alarm” level—the second of three steps under the emergency plan—brings Germany a step closer to the final stage that could see gas rationing in Europe’s top economy. “If we do nothing now, things will get worse,” Habeck Economy Minister Robert Habeck told reporters at a press conference.

“Gas is now a scarce commodity in Germany,” Habeck said, accusing Russia of using gas “as a weapon” against Germany in retaliation for the West’s support for Ukraine, with the aim of “destroying” European unity.

4:43pm: Russia expels another French diplomat

Russia on Thursday informed the French ambassador to Moscow that one of France’s cultural attachés was no longer welcome in the country.

“We regret this unjustified decision”, a spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry said in reaction to the news, noting “no legitimate” explanation had been provided.

In the beginning of April, just over a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, France announced it was expelling 35 Russian diplomats as part of a wider European move to protest the Russian aggression. More than 300 Russian diplomats were sent back to Moscow. In a tit-for-tat move, Russia responded by expelling 34 French diplomats.

2:57pm: US precision artillery systems arrive in Ukraine

Ukraine has received a delivery of precision artillery systems from the United States, the latest country to answer Kyiv’s plea for advanced weapons from allies.

“Himars have arrived to Ukraine. Thank you to my colleague and friend @SecDef Lloyd J. Austin III for these powerful tools! Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them,” Ukraine Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov wrote on Twitter.

The United States and NATO partners are sending Ukraine heavy armaments, such as howitzers and Himars rocket artillery – the latter offering greater range and precision than that offered by the Russian equivalent.

2:46pm: Nike permanently leaves Russian market

US sports apparel giant Nike is permanently leaving the Russian market and will not reopen its stores after temporarily shuttering them after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine.

“Nike Inc. made a decision to leave the Russian market ... The Nike stores were temporarily closed recently and will not reopen,” the company said in a statement, adding that its website and app will no longer be available in the country.

2:30pm: Putin calls on BRICS nations to offset effects of Western sanctions

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on the leaders of Brazil, India, China and South Africa – known as the BRICS nations – to cooperate in the face of the West’s "selfish actions" as Moscow is pummelled by sanctions over Ukraine.

"Only on the basis of honest and mutually beneficial cooperation can we look for ways out of this crisis situation, which developed in the global economy because of the ill-conceived, selfish actions of certain states," Putin said in televised remarks at the BRICS leaders virtual summit, referring to Western sanctions on Russia.

He added that BRICS nations "can count on the support of many Asian, African and Latin American states striving to pursue an independent policy".

Washington and Brussels have hit Moscow with unprecedented sanctions after Putin sent troops into pro-Western Ukraine on February 24.

The barrage of crippling sanctions has pushed Putin to seek new markets and strengthen ties with countries in Africa and Asia.

2:07pm: Russian forces still trying to encircle troops defending Lysychank, Ukraine's military says

Russian forces are trying to encircle Ukrainian troops defending the front-line eastern city of Lysychansk, a senior Ukrainian defence official said in an online briefing on Thursday.

"The enemy has not stopped trying ... to create conditions for the encirclement of units of our forces in the Lysychansk area," said Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of the main operational department of the General Staff.

1:50pm: Volunteers help civilians flee amid Russian advance

Russian forces are closing in on the city of Lysychansk, in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine's industrial heartland. For the past two months, volunteers from the aid group Base UA have been undertaking rescue missions to evacuate civilians near the front line. Click on the player below to watch the report.

1:01pm: Ukraine says Russian forces have captured two villages in Luhansk region

Russian forces captured two villages in Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region on Thursday and are trying to capture a third, Ukrainian military officials said.

The Ukrainian military’s General Staff said Russian forces took control of the villages of Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka, and were trying to capture Syrotyne outside the city of Severodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region in Donbas.

For weeks, Russian forces have pummelled Severodonetsk with artillery and air raids, and fought the Ukrainian army house to house. Ukrainian forces remain holed up at the Azot chemical plant on the city’s edge, where about 500 civilians were also sheltering.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai told The Associated Press that Ukrainian soldiers were using the plant's sprawling underground structures, but said that “the shelling has intensified and even concrete shelters can’t withstand the bombardment”.

11:45am: Russia says it struck Mykolaiv with high-precision weapons

Russian forces have used high-precision weapons to strike Ukrainian army fuel tanks and military equipment near the southern city of Mykolaiv, the Interfax news agency has reported, quoting the defence ministry in Moscow.

Earlier, Mykolaiv's Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych urged residents to take shelter after explosions were heard in the city. He did not provide further details in his post on messaging app Telegram.

The latest strike comes a day after a Russian missile killed at least one person and damaged buildings including a school in Mykolaiv, according to local authorities. Russia denies targeting civilians.

10:50am: UNESCO says more than 150 cultural sites in Ukraine have been destroyed or damaged in war

UN experts have confirmed the full or partial destruction of 152 cultural and historic heritage sites in Ukraine since Russia invaded the country, its cultural agency UNESCO said Thursday.

The heritage sites include museums and monuments, churches and other religious buildings, and libraries and other exceptional buildings, UNESCO said in an update of its efforts to assist Ukrainian authorities in documenting the damage.

"These repeated attacks on Ukrainian cultural sites must stop. Cultural heritage, in all its forms, should not be targeted under any circumstances," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.

UNESCO has been helping Ukrainian authorities mark landmarks with the distinctive "blue shield", meaning they are protected under the 1954 Hague convention on culture in armed conflicts, of which both Russia and Ukraine are signatories.

Yet dozens of sites have been damaged since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, with three-quarters in the eastern regions of Kharkiv and Donetsk as well as near the capital Kyiv, UNESCO said.

The seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ukraine have not been affected, such as the Saint Sophia Cathedral and monastic buildings of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in the capital.

Ukraine has demanded that Russia be expelled from UNESCO, and the agency has indefinitely postponed a meeting to discuss the status of World Heritage Sites that Russia was to host this month in the city of Kazan.

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 European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has hailed as a "wind of change".

"History is on the march," von der Leyen said ahead of a two-day summit that will kick-start 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.

"This is like going into the light from the darkness," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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.

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 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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