European Union grants Ukraine candidacy status after nearly two-decade struggle

Masi Nayyem shows the place he was injured during a combat mission. Photo taken in Dnipro, Ukraine on June 23, 2022.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Masi Nayyem was lying in a hospital bed with a white bandage over his right eye and much of his head, looking very much like an avatar of this war-battered country.

He lost his eye in a June 5 land mine explosion that forever changed the life of the 37-year-old lawyer-turned-Ukrainian soldier. Some of his friends of his have died defending the country.

And yet, Mr. Nayyem said, the European Union’s decision Thursday to formally grant candidate status to Ukraine – putting the country on course for eventual membership – made all the suffering worth it.

“From a personal perspective, this is what I lost my eye for,” he told The Globe and Mail on Thursday, grimacing from the pain that still comes in waves two weeks after he underwent a six-hour brain surgery to remove pieces of shrapnel from his head.

European Council president Charles Michel said Thursday that all 27 EU leaders had supported opening the door to Ukraine and neighboring Moldova, which is also considered a possible target of Russian expansionism. “A historic moment. Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU,” Mr. Michel wrote on Twitter. “Our future is together.”

The journey from candidate status to membership usually takes years and will likely require a postwar Ukraine to make substantive reforms. But after almost two decades of keeping silent and, at times, deferring to Moscow whenever Ukraine requested membership, Thursday marked the first time Brussels made it clear that it wants Ukraine to be a member just as badly as Kyiv does.

It has been a long and often violent struggle to get to this point. Eight and a half years ago, Mr. Nayyem was one of the first people to gather on Kyiv’s Independence Square, also known as Maidan, to protest then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden decision to abandon Ukraine’s EU ambitions in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Mr. Nayyem was responding to a Facebook post by his older brother, a well-known journalist who later went into politics. “Well, let’s get serious,” Mustafa Nayyem wrote on Nov. 21, 2013. “Who today is ready to come to Maidan before midnight? ‘Likes’ don’t count. Only comment under this post with the words, ‘I am ready.’ As soon as we get more than a thousand, we will organize ourselves.”

Thousands replied, and that night’s protest set in motion an uprising that within months had toppled Mr. Yanukovych and enraged Russian President Vladimir Putin. More than 100 people were killed in the revolution, and that was only the start of the bloodshed. By the end of 2014, Russia had seized and illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and launched the proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that preceded this year’s full-scale invasion.

In August, 2015, the younger Mr. Nayyem enlisted and became a junior lieutenant in a paratrooper unit that was deployed for a 15-month tour in Donbas. That experience made him – a prominent lawyer in Kyiv – one of the first reservists to be called up when Russia invaded on Feb. 24.

He wasn’t sure that returning to the front line as a paratrooper was the best use of his skills – he thinks he would have been more effective training new recruits – but he said he was proud to serve.

“I am complete when I am in the armed forces, because now, in these times of war, you can help,” he said in an interview in his room in the Mechnikov Hospital, in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, where he has been recovering from the brain surgery.

Thursday was his first day outside since the operation. He was pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse on a warm, sunny day.

Despite the severity of his injuries, he still speaks clearly and thoughtfully, switching between Ukrainian, English and Russian. (Both Nayyem brothers were born in Kabul and moved with their father to Ukraine as children to escape the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. “For me this war against Russia began the day I was born,” Mr. Nayyem said.)

He fared the best of the three men caught in that explosion on June 5. They were on a mission in Donbas – he was not permitted to say exactly where, or what the mission was, because he is still a serving officer – and decided to park their Volkswagen van somewhere out of sight.

But while the spot they chose was known to be clear of Ukrainian mines, multiple Russian mines had been planted there. The soldier driving the vehicle – which was armored on the sides, but not underneath – was immediately killed. Another soldier, a close friend of Mr. Nayyem’s, remains in a coma.

There have been other painful casualties. Among the first people to come to Maidan in November, 2013, was Roman Ratushnyi. Then a 16-year-old student, Mr. Ratushnyi became a cause célèbre when he was badly beaten by Mr. Yanukovych’s riot police. The incident was caught on film, causing widespread outrage that drew more Ukrainians into the streets.

After the revolution, Mr. Ratushnyi became an environmental activist and journalist, best known for his successful campaign to protect Protasiv Yar, a central Kyiv green space, from a politically connected developer. Mr. Nayyem, a friend of his, was his lawyer in that fight.

When Russia invaded, Mr. Ratushnyi was one of the first to volunteer. He took part in the successful defense of Kyiv, then joined military intelligence. The 24-year-old was killed near Izyum, in eastern Ukraine, on June 9, four days after Mr. Nayyem was injured.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed since the war began, but Mr. Ratushnyi’s death nonetheless struck a chord. Hundreds of his fellow activists attended his funeral Sunday in Kyiv. The mourners chanted, “Heroes never die!” as they brought his coffin from him to Maidan, where it was draped in a Ukrainian flag.

Mr. Nayyem said the horrors unleashed by Russia’s invasion had only strengthened his conviction – and, before his death, Mr. Ratushnyi’s – that they were right to stand up to Mr. Putin and Mr. Yanukovych and their corrupt authoritarianism back in 2013.

“Russia doesn’t build anything that you want to have. You can love or not love the United States, but Google and Tesla and a lot of the technologies that we use now come from there. I understand that not everything is good in Europe, but we wanted to get to Europe and we still want to get to Europe because there are rules there,” Mr. Nayyem said. “With Russia we would have nothing. No rules, no rights. Just a political system like in the USSR.”

There were no regrets, he said, among the activists who set things in motion with that first protest against Mr. Yanukovych. Particularly not now, with the goal of EU membership seemingly within reach.

“Maybe in 2013 we didn’t know about all that would happen, but if we were back in 2013 now, we’d do the same things again. …Despite all the losses.”

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