KYIV, Ukraine — As the European Union summit began in Brussels on Thursday night, an aide to the Ukrainian foreign minister tuned into the proceedings on a laptop.
The minister, Dmytro Kuleba, whose left leg was in a red cast due to a basketball injury, was optimistic as the European Council gave his war-torn country something it had been seeking unsuccessfully for years: the coveted candidate status. to join the block.
It was some of the best news for Ukraine, which is in its fourth month of war, as a successful counteroffensive drove Russian soldiers away from the capital. Mr. Kuleba said the council’s move was “the most important step in overcoming the last psychological barrier in relations between Ukraine and the European Union.”
Still, he acknowledged that his country would have to wait a long time before it could join the 27-member bloc. The action by the European Council, made up of the leaders of member states, was just the first step in a year-long process, and Ukraine would have to make progress in fighting corruption and enforcing the rule of law to finally pass.
“Sure, there will be talks, reforms here and in the European Union,” he said. “I don’t care. As long as the decision is made that Ukraine is Europe, I’m fine. History has been made.”
Mr Kuleba said that for decades, while Ukrainians were fighting for democracy in the protest movements of 2004 and 2014, Brussels and other European capitals were still “considering this idea of a buffer zone of something in the middle, a bridge between Russia and the EU.
In the latest phase, he said, European leaders were unofficially “winking” at Ukrainian officials. “Like, ‘Guys, it’s going to be okay, it’s going to take years, but you’re going to be with us in the end,’” she said. “But they were still afraid to say it out loud.”
As Mr. Kuleba spoke in the interview, air raid sirens were sounding in Kyiv. An assistant ran into the office to say that there were 10 Russian missiles flying over Ukrainian airspace.
“I am not surprised that the Russians fire something at Kyiv today,” Kuleba said, adding that the symbolism of the day would not be lost on the Kremlin.
Mr Kuleba, 41, a career diplomat, said he saw the European Union as “the first attempt to build a liberal empire” on democratic principles, in contrast to Russia’s aggression towards former Soviet states under President Vladimir V. Putin.
“I understand that people don’t like the word empire, but that’s how history is written,” Kuleba said. “We have to show that different things of a similar scale can be built on different principles: those of liberalism, democracy, respect for human rights, and not on the principle of imposing one’s will on others.”
Mr. Kuleba said he was grateful to other Western allies, especially the United States, for their military and political support. However, he said he expected a more explicit articulation of Washington’s war goals.
“We are still waiting for the moment when we hear a clear message from Washington that for Washington the goal of this war is for Ukraine to win and for international law to be restored,” he said. “And Ukraine’s victory for Washington means restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”