BRUSSELS — The European Union officially made Ukraine a candidate for membership on Thursday, signaling in the face of a devastating Russian military onslaught that it sees Ukraine’s future as lying in an embrace of the democratic West.
While Ukraine’s accession into the bloc could take a decade or more, the decision sends a powerful message of solidarity to Kyiv and a rebuke to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has worked for years to keep Ukraine from building Western ties.
Before Mr. Putin launched the invasion in February, insisting that Ukraine rightly belonged in Russia’s orbit, E.U. leaders would not have seriously considered starting Ukraine, with its history of oligarchy and corruption, on the path to membership.
The decision came at a critical moment in the war, as Russia threatens to capture more territory in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces are outgunned and at risk of being encircled in fierce combat around the city of Lysychansk.
The leaders of the 27 E.U. nations, meeting Thursday in Brussels, also granted candidate status to Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor, Moldova, spurred by concerns over Russia’s aggression in the region. Both countries, former Soviet republics, face difficult paths to membership in the bloc that will require them to reform their political and economic systems, strengthen the rule of law and fight corruption.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine called the E.U. move “one of the most important decisions for Ukraine” in its 30 years as an independent state.
“This is the greatest step toward strengthening Europe that could be taken right now, in our time, and precisely in the context of the Russian war, which is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on Telegram.