A day before a meeting of European Union leaders, where a vote is likely on Ukraine’s candidacy to the union, Russian forces pounded Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, and the eastern Donbas region.
The EU leaders’ two-day summit begins Thursday in Brussels. Olha Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told The Associated Press the vote could come as soon as Thursday.
Last week, the European Commission formally recommended EU-candidate status for Ukraine and its smaller neighbor, Moldova. On Wednesday, Stefanishyna said she was “100%” confident that Ukraine would be accepted as an EU candidate.
The candidacy status is just the first step toward joining the 27-member group. Ukraine will need to meet political and economic conditions, such as standards on democratic principles.
Stefanishyna told AP she thought Ukraine could be an EU member within years. Some European officials have suggested it could take decades.
“We’re already very much integrated in the European Union,” she told AP. “We want to be a strong and competitive member state, so it may take from two to 10 years.”
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation that he had spoken to 11 European Union leaders on Wednesday about Ukraine's candidacy and would make more calls on Thursday. Earlier, he voiced his optimism at joining the EU, saying he believed all 27 EU countries would support Ukraine's candidate status.
Meanwhile, Kharkiv region Governor Oleh Synehubov said shelling of the residential districts of Kharkiv and other towns in the region had continued unabated.
"There is no letup in the shelling of civilians by the Russian occupiers," he wrote on the Telegram messaging app. "This is evidence that we cannot expect the same scenario as in Chernihiv or Kyiv, with Russian forces withdrawing under pressure."
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video address that Russian forces were hitting Kharkiv "with the aim of terrorizing the population" and forcing Ukraine to divert troops, Reuters reported.
On Sunday, Zelenskyy had warned that Russia was likely to intensify its attacks this week, ahead of the EU action.
"Obviously, we expect Russia to intensify hostile activity this week. … We are preparing. We are ready,” he said.
Zelenskyy said Wednesday of Russia’s heavy air and artillery strikes in the eastern Donbas: “Step by step they want to destroy all of the Donbas. All of it."
Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesperson Oleksandr Motuzianyk told AP that in some battles, for every artillery shell that Ukrainian forces fire, the Russian army fires at least six.
Also, Microsoft reported Wednesday, Russian intelligence agencies have conducted multiple efforts to hack the computer networks of Ukraine’s allies.
"The cyber aspects of the current war extend far beyond Ukraine and reflect the unique nature of cyberspace," Microsoft President Brad Smith said in the report.
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, Reuters reported. In the past, Moscow has denied conducting foreign cyber espionage missions, saying it "contradicts the principles of Russian foreign policy."
Since the conflict began four months ago, Ukrainian entities have been attacked by Russian state-backed hacking groups, Microsoft reported. Researchers found 128 organizations in 42 countries outside Ukraine had been targeted by the same groups in espionage-focused hacks, the report found.
Nearly two-thirds of the cyberespionage targets involved NATO members, researchers found.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.