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Ukraine has taken another small step toward joining the European Union

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ukraine has taken another small step toward joining the European Union. The bloc's executive commission recommended that negotiations for Ukraine's accession into the EU begin in the coming months. Joining the bloc has been a top priority for the besieged country since before Russia launched its full-scale invasion nearly two years ago. NPR's Nathan Rott is in southern Ukraine and joins us now. Hi there.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey.

SUMMERS: So, Nate, tell us. How significant is this latest step?

ROTT: So on a global scale, it's fairly small. The European Commission gave Ukraine candidate status more than a year ago, saying that the country needed to meet seven criteria to keep moving through this whole process. So we're talking, like, reforms to address corruption, money laundering, press freedom, other issues. The European Commission says that Ukraine has made enough progress now on those reforms that it should be able to move into formal negotiations. But joining the European Union, if you haven't gathered, is a long and very bureaucratic process.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

ROTT: And there's no guarantee that, even if Ukraine meets all of these criteria - that they'll be able to get in. That's why I say it's a small gain in the global sense. Locally, though, here in Ukraine, where people are honestly just hungry for any good news, it's definitely a bigger deal. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the decision as a historic step.

SUMMERS: People are hungry for any good news. What do you mean by that?

ROTT: So it's interesting. You know, this is my first reporting trip to Ukraine in about a year, and it's really striking to see how the mood has changed in that time. It's been nearly a year since Ukraine has made any significant gains in retaking territory.

SUMMERS: And the much-talked-about counteroffensive in the country has been slow, right?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, the head of Ukraine's armed forces wrote an article in The Economist magazine last week saying that the frontlines are essentially at, like, a World War I-like stalemate, an assessment that, you know, Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian leaders have since downplayed. But for the average Ukrainian living under daily air raid sirens, they're tired. You know, we talked to a woman here in Dnipro the other day who's in her medical residency for gynecology. Her name is Diana Panshyna, and she says when the air raid starts, she usually shelters in her bathroom.

DIANA PANSHYNA: I mean, you don't know for sure where the Russians are aiming because they don't care. You're thinking, what if it's me? What if if it's my house? What do I do? Should I collect my documents right now? And at that moment, I'm most anxious. And this is something that people who are not affected by war will not understand.

ROTT: And she says, you know, that's a thing she doesn't want anybody to have to understand.

SUMMERS: Yeah. What are you hearing from people there about the biggest concerns as this war keeps going?

ROTT: So in the immediate term, it's winter for sure. You know, last year Russia regularly attacked Ukraine's energy and heating infrastructure, causing power outages in major cities and regions and just generally making life miserable for people. It's been unseasonably warm in Ukraine so far this year. It was a beautiful bluebird sky day here. The director of the Energy Industry Research Center here in Ukraine, Oleksandr Kharchenko, says that Ukraine is using that warm weather to its advantage right now.

OLEKSANDR KHARCHENKO: Each warm day, each day without massive attacks and massive strikes against energy infrastructure give us additional time for preparation, and this time is used very effectively.

ROTT: So he means they're repairing power plants and infrastructure. They're building defenses. But he did say that he very much expects Russia to really ramp up its wide-scale attacks on energy infrastructure as soon as temperatures dip.

SUMMERS: NPR's Nathan Rott in Dnipro, Ukraine. Thank you.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nate Rott