In Kyiv, EU chief promises a signal on Ukraine's bid next week
Making a surprise visit to Kyiv, von der Leyen said talks she held with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky "will enable us to finalise our assessment by the end of next week".
The European Commission will provide a clear signal next week on Ukraine's EU candidate status bid, its chief Ursula von der Leyen said Saturday, as fighting raged in the east and south of the country.
Making a surprise visit to Kyiv, von der Leyen said talks she held with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky "will enable us to finalise our assessment by the end of next week" -- the first time the bloc has publicly given a sense of timing.
Zelensky has been pressing for rapid admission into the European Union as a way of reducing Ukraine's geopolitical vulnerability, which was brutally exposed by Russia's February 24 invasion.
But officials and leaders in the bloc caution that, even with candidacy status, actual EU membership could take years or even decades.
Von der Leyen, appearing alongside Zelensky during her second visit to Kyiv since the war began, made no promises, noting further reforms were needed.
The Ukrainian president warned it was a "decisive time" for his country and the EU.
"Russia wants to ruin the European unity, wants to leave Europe divided and wants to leave it weak. The entire Europe is a target for Russia. Ukraine is only the first stage in this aggression," he said.
Despite reservations among some member states, EU leaders are expected to approve Ukraine's candidate status at a summit on June 23-24, though with strict conditions attached.
- Crisis and famine -
The European Union and the United States have strongly backed Ukraine, sending weapons and cash to help it see off Russian forces, and punishing Moscow with unprecedented economic sanctions.
Zelensky has urged them on during a diplomatic offensive that has seen him regularly appear via video link at various parliaments and summits around the world.
Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore on Saturday, he highlighted the dangers of a global food crisis posed by Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports.
He warned of "an acute and severe food crisis and famine", adding that the "shortage of foodstuffs will inexorably lead to political chaos" -- all of it "the direct consequence of the acts of the Russian state".
Also Saturday, Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday cited reports of Russians loading trucks with Ukrainian wheat and taking it to Russian-controlled areas.
Before the war, Russia and Ukraine produced 30 percent of the global wheat supply, but grain is stuck in Ukraine's ports -- while Western sanctions have disrupted exports from Russia.
Speaking to delegates including Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and China's defence minister, Zelensky urged international pressure to end the blockade.
- 'It's hard' -
After withdrawing from the capital Kyiv, Russian forces have concentrated their firepower on the eastern Donbas region and the south.
They continued in areas around Kharkiv and in the Donbas regions of Lugansk and Donetsk overnight, Zelensky's office said, with the regional governor reporting two civilian deaths and 11 injuries Saturday in locations across Donetsk.
Moscow has particularly focused on the key eastern industrial city of Severodonetsk, which Gaiday said Saturday was "ruined" by Russian forces.
"This is their tactics -- people are not needed, the infrastructure is not needed, houses are not needed, everything should be simply ruined," he said in an interview posted on Telegram.
Later, on television, Gaiday said lightly armed Ukrainian fighters in Severodonetsk were winning street battles, but that Russian artillery would then destroy the buildings those fighters were using for cover -- "story by story," he said, adding, "It's hard."
Gaiday said the number of civilian victims would be "enormous and terrible".
In Odessa, a man died after coming into contact with an explosive object while swimming at a beach with his wife and son, the regional Ukrainian command said on Facebook. Visiting beaches there is currently banned due to the risks of mines.
The city of Chortkiv in the country's west was shelled Saturday evening, regional governor Volodymyr Trush said on Telegram, while his counterpart in the Mykolaiv region in the south, governor Vitaliy Kim, stressed the urgent need for international military assistance.
"Russia's army is more powerful, they have a lot of artillery and ammo... and we are out of ammo," he said.
For residents in Mykolaiv, every day brings a brush with death.
Igor Karputov, 31, recalled how his neighbourhood was hit last week, shaking his apartment, and he helped a bleeding man to an ambulance.
"Then I went to another place which had been hit, where emergency services were already taking care of someone," he told AFP.
"But they were dead. And the one I had helped died in an ambulance."
- Russian passports issued -
In areas now controlled by its forces, Moscow has sought to impose its authority.
Authorities in the occupied southern city of Kherson handed out Russian passports to local residents for the first time on Saturday, news agencies reported.
Russia's TASS agency said 23 Kherson residents received a Russian passport at a ceremony through a "simplified procedure" allowed by a decree from President Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine has called the passports "legally void".
Last month, Russian authorities introduced the ruble in the Kherson region as an official currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.
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