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Inside Ukraine’s quest to keep its European dream alive

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BRUSSELS — No one thought Ukraine would get this close, this fast, to securing a free, democratic future as a member of the European Union — not even Olha Stefanishyna, the 38-year-old deputy prime minister whose job is to make that dream come true.

Stefanishyna had spent her life trying to integrate her country with the West and get it out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clutches — a quest that often seemed quixotic. But Putin’s 2022 invasion backfired, vaulting Ukraine to official status as a candidate for E.U. membership.

Now Ukraine and Stefanishyna have a real shot — if the country can survive.

For Ukraine, it is about “coming back to the origins of the family of European nations,” Stefanishyna said, and “getting rid of the post-Soviet burden, this legacy of tyranny and suffering.”

As Ukraine’s military tries to hold off the continuing Russian onslaught, Stefanishyna and other diplomats are waging their own offensive to preserve Ukraine’s independence and identity by carving out a path forward in Brussels — despite the continuing, if far more quiet, reluctance of E.U. countries worried that such a big and needy new member will divert resources from their own citizens.

That reticence was on display this week as France and Poland teamed up to push for curbs on Ukrainian imports amid protests by farmers in their own countries who are clamoring for more support. Agriculture is Ukraine’s most important industry, and the country’s economy is a wreck but Kyiv has little ability to complain.

Stefanishyna has spent the war shuttling between Kyiv and Brussels. Once an easy three-hour flight, it can take her more than 20 hours to get from the Ukrainian capital, where there are no operating airports because of the constant threat of missile strikes, to the E.U. capital, which is very much at peace.

In Kyiv, she works from a government building barricaded by sandbags and checkpoints, where metal grates can be lowered over her office windows when air raid sirens blare.

She was separated from her children for months at the start of the invasion. Now, on some nights, she bundles them into a car to sleep in a parking garage-turned-bomb shelter.

In Brussels, meanwhile, it is business as usual. Leaders meet. Deals are struck. “Countries and destinies are just files,” she said. That dynamic means she has to convey her country’s stakes carefully, always walking a fine line between asking and imploring, even as Ukrainians are getting shelled back home.

Around the negotiating table, she said, “we are just the same.”

“The difference is … that coming back to Kyiv, we’re in a country of war,” she said. “We’re on the edge of survival.”

The challenges ahead are both bureaucratic and existential. The E.U. tasks prospective member states with a slew of reforms to bring their laws in line with the union’s voluminous rule book. Countries must retool their institutions and markets from top to bottom. Even in the best of conditions, the process can take a decade or more.

For Ukraine, success will require overcoming opposition from overtly Russia-friendly leaders and also isolationists who think the E.U. club is big enough. It will also mean living to fight, and negotiate, another day — while asking the same countries that must decide on membership to also pay for ammunition and weapons and host war refugees.

“Whenever we hear that Ukrainians are impatient, they are nervous, they’re ungrateful … it is normal,” Stefanishyna said. “We are an extremely grateful nation … But it’s just like, ‘my kids are living under bomb shelling.’”

Born in Odessa in what was then the Soviet Union, Stefanishyna was a small child when Ukraine declared its independence in 1991. She was in college in 2004 and 2005 when Ukrainians took to the streets to protest election fraud by which pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych tried to steal the presidency from his rival, Viktor Yushchenko.

That movement, which became known as the Orange Revolution, shaped her politically and personally: Her parents joined the protests and, for the first time, shared with her painful details of their family’s past, explaining how the Soviets had persecuted her relatives.

Those hopeful protests were “the sign for them that Ukraine exists,” she said.

She graduated from law school in 2008 and worked at the Ministry of Justice, laying the legal groundwork for closer E.U.-Ukraine cooperation.

Back then, E.U. membership wasn’t on the table. The “only possible step,” she recalled, was a political association agreement and free trade deal with the E.U. In 2010, Yanukovych won the presidency promising to sign the accords. But in November 2013, under pressure from Russia, he balked. Stefanishyna remembers seeing the news on TV while home playing with her young daughter, and thinking: “OK, so people will be in the streets.”

Through the protests known as Euromaidan she spent days in the office and evenings and weekends in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Her parents came from Odessa and took her daughter into the crowds. She still gets chills speaking of how her child joined protests that soon turned violent. Police killed more than 100 demonstrators; Yanukovych abandoned his post and fled to Russia.

In the following weeks, Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea, then fomented war in the eastern Donbas region. What Stefanishyna takes from Yanukovych’s decision and its violent aftermath is a lesson in Ukrainian resolve and Russian miscalculation.

“We have it now in our blood,” she said, “the understanding that it’s only us who hold the front.”

When Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022, Stefanishyna, now deputy prime minister, sent her children to Slovakia to stay with their paternal grandparents, and she traveled to Western Ukraine with other officials to coordinate the response.

“We saw that everything we’ve been building for 10 years was just disappearing,” she recalled. “The roads were disappearing, the buildings, the lives of the people.”

But she knew, too, that Putin’s attack would make her work more urgent. An E.U. membership application, she said, could preserve “at least in our memory” the country’s progress on rights and democratic norms.

Four days later, on Feb. 28, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the E.U. for a fast-track to membership — a request many European diplomats dismissed as far-fetched. Zelensky appealed urgently to leaders, often by video call from war-battered Kyiv.

After Russian forces retreated from outside Kyiv in late March, Stefanishyna traded her suits and heels for military fatigues and guided European visitors through the destroyed suburbs where Russian forces executed civilians.

In June, the E.U. granted Ukraine candidate status. An ecstatic Zelensky called it the “victory” his country had been striving for not just since the invasion, but since independence in 1991. “We have been waiting for 120 days and 30 years,” he said.

An E.U. official told The Washington Post that June that Ukraine had pushed the E.U. to move more in two weeks “than in the last 25 years.”

Stefanishyna was surprised by the speed. Before the war, she said, “we were not even daring to think … of filing the application.”

Amid the positive momentum, she brought her children home to Kyiv.

Stefanishyna had worked much of her life for this moment. But on a drizzly December morning, the situation in Brussels looked bleak.

Just before E.U. leaders were expected to approve opening membership talks with Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban threatened to block the process.

Russian hackers had just taken down Ukraine’s biggest phone network, disconnecting Stefanishyna from Kyiv. Zelensky was calling nonstop for updates — tethering her to WiFi to stay in contact.

As she prepared for intense discussions, she was full of dread about what a “no” would mean at home. Two days later, E.U. leaders convinced Orban to leave the room at a key moment, letting other leaders vote to seal the deal for Ukraine.

The question now is if Ukraine can maintain momentum. While Orban caved on the talks, he and others will have ample opportunity to thwart Ukraine in years ahead.

Whatever happens, Stefanishyna said she will soldier on. “The war should last as long as it needs to last,” she said. “Until the victory is there.”

Rauhala reported from Brussels and O’Grady from Kyiv. Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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