India faces diplomatic fallout over remarks insulting Prophet Muhammad

Special India faces diplomatic fallout over remarks insulting Prophet Muhammad
Indian Muslims at a protest rally demanding the arrest of Nupur Sharma of the Hindu nationalist party after she made derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. (AP)
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Updated 07 June 2022

India faces diplomatic fallout over remarks insulting Prophet Muhammad

India faces diplomatic fallout over remarks insulting Prophet Muhammad
  • At least 7 Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, have lodged protests over the remarks
  • Latest controversy follows increasing violence toward India’s Muslim minority

NEW DELHI: India is facing a major diplomatic row with Muslim countries after top officials from the country’s ruling party made insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, with experts saying on Monday the fallout could damage the South Asian country’s relations with its Islamic nations.

Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, prominent spokespersons from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, made derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad on different occasions, sparking anger among Muslims in India and overseas.

The BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal on Sunday, following a chorus of diplomatic outrage from Islamic countries and institutions, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as ire poured out on social media, and calls for a boycott of Indian goods surfaced.

The controversial remarks follow increasing violence targeting India’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 13 percent of its 1.35 billion population, carried out by Hindu nationalists, who have been emboldened by Modi’s regular silence about such attacks since taking office in 2014.

As criticisms from Muslim countries mounted over the weekend, experts said India’s international standing, especially in the Gulf, is in jeopardy.

“The government of India should have seen what was coming and should have proactively stopped all these hate propaganda, politics and activities. Unfortunately, the ruling party was promoting it,” Sudheendra Kulkarni, political activist and former advisor to the former BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, told Arab News.

“It’s not the BJP but the country that will bear the cost of anti-Muslim politics.”

India’s foreign policy under Modi has prioritized relations with Arab nations and the close ties it enjoys hold importance for the South Asian country, including for oil imports and the remittances it receives from Gulf states, as around 4 million Indian nationals work in the region, sending over $80 billion annually.

“For all these reasons, India cannot afford to have an Arab world which is angry with India,” foreign policy expert Manoj Joshi, who is attached with the Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, told Arab News.

India’s relations with the Arab world are passing through “a golden phase,” said Meena Singh Roy, who heads the West & Central Asia Center at Tilottama Foundation.

“We should not do anything to derail it,” she told Arab News.

Sanjay Kapoor, chief editor of the political magazine Hard News, urged action by the nation’s leadership.

“India’s image has been hurt badly and this is something that cannot be fixed by diplomacy, but corrective action by political leadership in India,” Kapoor told Arab News.

The Indian government has yet to comment on the protests lodged by Arab nations, but the Ministry of External Affairs said on Monday that the OIC’s statement on the matter was “unwarranted” and “narrow-minded,” while India’s embassies in Qatar and Doha issued statements that the views expressed about the Prophet Muhammad and Islam did not reflect those of New Delhi.

The BJP said the remarks “were not in alignment with the ideology the BJP represents.”

Spokesperson Sudesh Verma told Arab News: “The BJP does not believe in disrespecting reverential figures of any religion.”

As the treatment of Muslim minorities in the country has been a “matter of great concern for the people,” India’s former foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, said the latest controversy may pave the way for change.

“The vast majority of the people don’t approve of this and now that there is a backlash abroad these people will become more careful,” Sinha told Arab News.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition Congress Party, said on Twitter that the ruling party’s actions are weakening the country at the global level.

“BJP’s shameful bigotry has not only isolated us, but also damaged India’s standing globally,” Ghandhi said.

US Supreme Court strikes down right to abortion

US Supreme Court strikes down right to abortion
Updated 25 June 2022

US Supreme Court strikes down right to abortion

US Supreme Court strikes down right to abortion

WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Friday struck down the right to abortion in a seismic ruling that shredded five decades of constitutional protections and prompted several right-leaning states to impose immediate bans on the procedure.
The conservative-dominated court overturned the landmark 1973 “Roe v. Wade” decision enshrining a woman’s right to an abortion, saying individual states can restrict or ban the procedure themselves.
“The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion,” the court said in a 6-3 ruling on one of America’s most bitterly divisive issues. “The authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”
A somber President Joe Biden called the ruling a “tragic error” stemming from “extreme ideology” and said it was a “sad day for the court and the country.”
“The health and life of women in this nation are now at risk,” Biden said, warning that other rights could be threatened next, such as same-sex marriage and contraception.
The Democratic president urged Congress to restore abortion protections as federal law and said Roe will be “on the ballot” in November’s midterm elections.
Hundreds of people — some weeping for joy and others with grief — gathered outside the fenced-off Supreme Court as the ruling came down.
“It’s hard to imagine living in a country that does not respect women as human beings and their right to control their bodies,” said Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, 49, a mother of two daughters who was choking back tears.
“You have failed us,” read a sign held up by one protester. “Shame,” said another.
But Gwen Charles, a 21-year-old opponent of abortion, was jubilant.
“This is the day that we have been waiting for,” Charles told AFP. “We get to usher in a new culture of life in the United States.”
Just hours after the ruling, Missouri banned abortion — making no exception for rape or incest — and so did South Dakota, except where the life of the mother is at risk.
Abortion providers in Wisconsin said the procedure was now banned there.
“This is a monumental day for the sanctity of life,” Missouri attorney general Eric Schmitt said.
About two dozen states are expected to severely restrict or outright ban and criminalize abortions, forcing women to travel long distances to states that still permit the procedure.
In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said Roe v. Wade was “egregiously wrong.”
“Abortion presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views,” he said. “The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion.”
The court tossed out the legal argument in Roe v. Wade that women had the right to abortion based on the constitutional right to privacy with regard to their own bodies.
While the ruling represents a victory in the struggle against abortion by the religious right, leaders of the largely Christian conservative movement said it does not go far enough and they will push for a nationwide ban.
“While it’s a major step in the right direction, overturning Roe does not end abortion,” said the group March for Life.
“God made the decision,” said former Republican president Donald Trump in praising the court’s ruling.
The ruling was made possible by Trump’s nomination of three conservative justices — Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Alito’s opinion largely mirrors his draft opinion that was the subject of an extraordinary leak in early May, sparking nationwide demonstrations, with an armed man arrested this month near the home of conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, called the ruling “outrageous and heart-wrenching,” while leading abortion provider Planned Parenthood vowed to “never stop fighting.”
The three liberal justices on the court dissented from the ruling — which came a day after the court ushered in a major expansion of US gun rights.
“One result of today’s decision is certain: the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens,” they said.
Abortion providers could now face criminal penalties and “some States will not stop there,” they warned.
“Perhaps, in the wake of today’s decision, a state law will criminalize the woman’s conduct too, incarcerating or fining her for daring to seek or obtain an abortion,” they said.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 13 states have adopted so-called “trigger laws” that will ban abortion virtually immediately.
Ten others have pre-1973 laws that could go into force or legislation that would ban abortion after six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant.
Women in states with strict anti-abortion laws will either have to continue with their pregnancy, undergo a clandestine abortion, obtain abortion pills, or travel to another state where it remains legal.
Several Democratic-ruled states, anticipating an influx, have taken steps to facilitate abortion and three of them — California, Oregon and Washington — issued a joint pledge to defend access in the wake of the court’s decision.
The ruling goes against an international trend of easing abortion laws, including in such countries as Ireland, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia where the Catholic Church continues to wield considerable influence.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called it a “huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described it as “horrific” while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was a “big step backwards.”

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?
Updated 25 June 2022

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?
  • Concerns growing about the future of bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated country
  • IS-K exploiting disunity among Taliban over whether to embrace pragmatism or ideological purity

LONDON: Nearly a year into the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan following the US military withdrawal, there is mounting concern that the bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated country could once again become a sanctuary for extremist groups and even a launchpad for global terrorism.

The US beat a rushed retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021 after reaching a shaky peace deal with the Taliban, whose leaders pledged to never again offer sanctuary to extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, which had plotted the 9/11 attacks from Afghan soil.

The hope was that Afghanistan would not become a hotbed of international terrorism as it had been in 2001, and that a plot for an attack of 9/11’s magnitude would never again emanate from the country.

But in common with millions of Afghans, not many South Asian observers were convinced of the Taliban’s sincerity, believing instead that the country was being hijacked yet again by a violent and insular fundamentalist group.

“I do think that Afghanistan has already become a hive of terrorism,” Ahmad Wali Massoud, a former ambassador of Afghanistan to the UK, told Arab News.

“Already we can see many strands of terrorism, from Al-Qaeda to Daesh. They are already staying inside Afghanistan, they are being protected by the Taliban, they are protected by the government of Taliban inside Afghanistan.”

Massoud is the younger brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik guerrilla commander who until the Taliban’s return to power last year was feted as Afghanistan’s national hero.

Daesh’s Afghanistan franchise, IS-K, remains a threat to the Taliban’s grip on power. (AFP)

“The US departure from Afghanistan was very unrealistic, very irresponsible, it was not coordinated well, and ignored the people of Afghanistan,” Ahmad Wali Massoud told Arab News.

“The US left their allies, the people of Afghanistan, the security forces of Afghanistan, which they helped for almost 20 years. They completely ignored them. They left them alone to the mercy of terrorism, of the Taliban, of extremism.”

Today, Ahmad Wali Massoud’s nephew, Ahmad Massoud, heads the National Resistance Front against the Taliban in his native Panjshir, north of Kabul, where his father had famously resisted the Soviets and the Taliban decades earlier.

Recent fighting in Panjshir does not still represent a challenge to the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, but it is the most significant and sustained armed opposition the group has faced since returning to power.

For Massoud and others, the idea that, once in power, the Taliban would act less like an insurgent movement and more like a government for all Afghans, was not quite grounded in reality.

With political violence now rife across the country, freedom of speech curtailed, and the rights of women and girls eroding steadily, war-weary Afghans’ mood is one of deepening pessimism.

Responding to the developments since last August, the US and global financial institutions have frozen Afghanistan’s assets, withheld aid and loans, and sought to isolate the Taliban regime.

A recently released UN report says IS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, “concentrated in remote areas” of Kunar, Nangarhar and possibly Nuristan provinces. (AFP)

As a result, the Afghan government is perpetually on the brink of economic collapse and, in some parts of the country, the specter of famine looms. Almost half the population — 20 million people — is experiencing acute hunger, according to a UN-backed report issued in May.

On Wednesday, the country faced a new humanitarian crisis when a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the country’s east, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring another 1,500. Most of the deaths occurred in the provinces of Paktika, Khost and Nangarhar,

Additionally, the Taliban finds itself battling a violent insurgency led by Daesh’s local franchise, the Islamic State in Khorasan, or IS-K, which in recent months has repeatedly targeted members of minority communities including Shiites, Sikhs and Sufis.

A recently released UN report says IS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, “concentrated in remote areas” of Kunar, Nangarhar and possibly Nuristan provinces. According to the study, smaller, covert cells are located in northern and northeastern provinces, including Badakhshan, Takhar, Jowzjan, Kunduz and Faryab.

While the Taliban is satisfied with setting up an Islamic polity within Afghanistan, the goal of IS-K is to create a single state for the entire Muslim world, according to scholars of political Islam.

IS-K is seeking to exploit dissension within the Taliban ranks over whether the group should embrace pragmatism or ideological purity. The tensions are intensified by the hodge-podge of entities in Afghanistan, including Daesh, the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda.


* 20m Afghans experiencing acute hunger.

* 1,000+ Death toll of June 22 earthquake.

* 1,500+ UN estimate of IS-K fighters in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s dilemma as it tries to govern a country that has experienced 20 years of Western-led modernization was predicted by Kamran Bokhari in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 27, 2021.

“The Afghan Taliban have to change but can’t — not without causing an internal rupture,” he wrote. “Such changes ... require a long and tortuous process, and even then, transformation remains elusive.

“The risk of fracture is especially acute when a movement has to change behavior abruptly for geopolitical reasons.”

On the one hand, the number of bombings across Afghanistan has dropped since last August and Taliban 2.0 cannot be accused of directly sponsoring terrorism. On the other hand, the ensuing collapse of state authority in some rural areas and the loss of Western air support for counterinsurgency operations have been a blessing to extremist groups.

“The Taliban takeover has benefited militant groups in multiple ways,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told Arab News. 

“It has galvanized and energized an Islamist extremist network for which the expulsion of US troops from Muslim soil and the elimination of US-aligned governments are core goals. The takeover has also brought into power a group with close ideological and operational links to a wide range of militant groups.

“This means at the very least that the Taliban won’t try to expel these groups from Afghan territory, and in the case of the one group that it is targeting, IS-K, it lacks the discipline and capacity to undertake careful and effective counterterrorism tactics.

“On a related note, the Taliban lack the capacity to operate air power, which had been the main means used by NATO forces and the Afghan military to manage the IS-K threat. Furthermore, the Taliban has no ability to ease an acute economic crisis, and the widespread privation fosters an environment ripe for radicalization. This benefits the IS-K.”

One of the deadliest earthquakes in decades on June 22 has added to Afghanistan’s woes. (AFP)

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the international community’s patience has flagged and attention has shifted toward the war in Ukraine and the alarming prospect of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO states.

Kugelman believes the terror threats emanating from Afghanistan fell off the radar long before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

“I would argue that the world was letting the terrorism threat in Afghanistan fester well before the Ukraine war, mainly because the US had struggled to build out the capacity to monitor and target terrorist threats in Afghanistan from outside the country,” he told Arab News.

“This isn’t a big problem now, given that the threat is not what it used to be. But if this neglect allows the global terrorism threat in Afghanistan to gradually grow back and the US and its partners still don’t have a plan, then all bets are off and there could be big problems.”

To be sure, the situation in Afghanistan is still very different from that of pre-2001, when the entire Al-Qaeda leadership was based in the country as guests of Mullah Omar, the founder and then-leader of the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda and its then-leader Osama bin Laden had initially been welcomed to Afghanistan by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Mujahideen leader, after bin Laden’s 1996 expulsion from Sudan.

In Afghanistan’s political and geographic isolation inherited by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda was able to freely plot its attacks against the US.

In April 2001, just a few months before 9/11 and his own assassination at the hands of Al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmad Shah Massoud had addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, warning the West would pay a heavy price if it continued to allow extremism to fester in Afghanistan.

Does that fateful speech have any relevance to the current situation?

Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a damaged vehicle inside a house, day after a US drone airstrike in Kabul on August 30, 2021. (AFP)

“While one should never be complacent, it’s safe to say the global terrorism threat emanating from Afghanistan isn’t as serious today as it was when Massoud issued his warning in 2001,” said Kugelman.

“Al-Qaeda has become much weaker and the only other group in Afghanistan with globally focused goals is a Daesh chapter that currently can’t project a threat beyond the immediate region.

“That said, let’s be clear: With NATO forces out of Afghanistan and an Al-Qaeda-allied regime now in power, the ground is fertile in the medium term for international terror groups to reconstitute themselves — and especially if we see new influxes of foreign fighters into Afghanistan that can bring shock troops, arms, money, and tactical expertise to these groups.”

In exile in Europe, Ahmad Wali Massoud is convinced that the Trump and Biden administrations made a grave error in deciding to negotiate with the Taliban and in withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Allowing the group to return to power, he believes, will inevitably transform Afghanistan into a terror heartland — a development he is convinced, just as his brother warned, will come back to haunt the West.

“I think, by now, they must have realized, after almost a year, that they have made a mistake, because they know now that the Taliban is out of control,” Massoud told Arab News.

“I do think that if the situation remains like this, they will pay a very high price. Of course, Afghanistan has already paid a very high price. But I’m pretty sure the US will also pay a very high price.”


Female tribal politician is front-runner in India’s presidential race

Draupadi Murmu. (Supplied)
Draupadi Murmu. (Supplied)
Updated 25 June 2022

Female tribal politician is front-runner in India’s presidential race

Draupadi Murmu. (Supplied)
  • Draupadi Murmu almost certain to be elected as her party holds a majority in parliament
  • If successful she will become only the second woman to hold the post

NEW DELHI: Draupadi Murmu, the presidential candidate for India’s ruling party, filed her nomination in parliament on Friday and looks set to become the first tribal politician and only the second woman to hold the position.

The 64-year-old veteran politician from the eastern state of Orissa is a strong favorite as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party holds a majority in parliament. If successful, she would take over from President Ram Nath Kovind, whose term expires next month.

The Indian presidency is a largely ceremonial post, as executive authority is held by the prime minister. The president is elected indirectly by both houses of parliament and the legislative assemblies of each of India’s states and territories. Voting will be held on July 18.

“I thank all and seek cooperation from everyone for the presidential election,” Murmu said a day before filing her nomination. “I will meet all voters and seek their support.”

The primary duty of the president is to preserve the constitution and appoint the attorney general. The president is also the supreme commander of the Indian Armed Forces, and as such can declare war or conclude peace.

“The president of India reigns but does not rule,” Sanjay Hegde, a constitutional lawyer from the Supreme Court, told Arab News. “In India’s parliamentary system, he or she occupies a place as the constitutional head of state, who is almost invariably bound by cabinet advice.”

But the president does have some influence.

“In the event of a fractured mandate after a general election, the president has the choice of appointment among potential prime ministers,” Hedge said. “He or she can choose the person best placed to command the confidence of the lower house.”

Murmu will compete for the post with opposition candidate Yashwant Sinha, who was a senior BJP leader before he left the party in 2018 following a divergence with Modi on economic issues.

Sinha, 84, served as finance minister under a BJP government from 1998 to 2002 and as foreign minister between 2002 and 2004.

Political analyst Satish Kumar Singh told Arab News Murmu’s appointment was “a clever choice by the BJP,” as the ruling party was trying to expand its outreach among the marginalized tribal community which constitutes about 10 percent of India’s population.

“Droupadi Murmu comes from Orissa, where the BJP has been trying to make inroads for years. By nominating a local tribal leader, Modi is trying to improve his party’s position among the crucial tribal population,” he said.

It will be very difficult for tribal members of parliament who sit in the opposition ranks to vote against a tribal woman.

“Murmu’s candidacy also created a rift in the opposition camp with some opposition-run states like Orissa and Jharkhand deciding to back the tribal presidential candidate,” Singh added.

“This might be a presidential election but the whole calculation has been done keeping in mind the future electoral process.”


World faces unprecedented global hunger crisis, UN chief says

World faces unprecedented global hunger crisis, UN chief says
Updated 24 June 2022

World faces unprecedented global hunger crisis, UN chief says

World faces unprecedented global hunger crisis, UN chief says
  • More than 460,000 people in Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan are in famine conditions
  • Millions of people in 34 other countries are on the brink of famine

UNITED NATIONS: There is a “real risk” of multiple famines this year, UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Friday and urged ministers meeting on food security to take practical steps to stabilize food markets and reduce commodity price volatility.
“We face an unprecedented global hunger crisis,” Guterres told the meeting in Berlin via video. “The war in Ukraine has compounded problems that have been brewing for years: climate disruption; the COVID-19 pandemic; the deeply unequal recovery.”
More than 460,000 people in Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan are in famine conditions under the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) — a scale used by UN agencies, regional bodies and aid groups to determine food insecurity. This is the step before a declaration of famine in a region.
Millions of people in 34 other countries are on the brink of famine, according to the IPC.
“There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022. And 2023 could be even worse,” said Guterres, calling mass hunger and starvation unacceptable in the 21st century.
Guterres said there could be no effective solution to the crisis unless Ukraine and Russia, which produce about 29 percent of global wheat exports, find a way to properly resume trade.
Shipments from Ukrainian ports have been halted by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. Moscow wants certain Western sanctions lifted in order to resume its grain and fertilizer exports.
The United Nations and Turkey are trying to broker a deal.
Guterres did not elaborate on the talks, saying: “Public statements could hinder success.”
He also asked ministers at the Berlin meeting to address a finance crisis in developing countries.

Ukrainians cheer nation’s EU candidacy amid wartime woes

Ukrainians cheer nation’s EU candidacy amid wartime woes
Updated 24 June 2022

Ukrainians cheer nation’s EU candidacy amid wartime woes

Ukrainians cheer nation’s EU candidacy amid wartime woes
  • Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an opposition leader who became prime minister after the revolution, expressed joy at the country's candidate status
  • “Thank you to our soldiers - they won this decision," Yatsenyuk tweeted

KYIV: The European Union’s decision to make Ukraine a candidate for EU membership offered war-weary Ukrainians a morale boost and hope of a more secure future Friday as the country’s military ordered its fighters to retreat from a key city in the eastern Donbas region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the decision of EU leaders as vindication for his nation’s fight against Russia’s aggression and said he was determined to ensure Ukraine retained the ability to decide if belonged in Europe or under Moscow’s influence.
“This war began just when Ukraine declared its right to freedom. To its choice of its future. We saw it in the European Union,” Zelensky told the nation in a televised address late Thursday. “That is why this decision of the EU is so important, motivates us and shows all this is needed not only by us.”
Others recalled the 2014 revolution that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, sparked in part by his decision not to complete an association agreement with the EU. Russian President Vladimir Putin had opposed the agreement, just as he demanded before he sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an opposition leader who became prime minister after the revolution, expressed joy at the country’s candidate status but also “bitterness” over the “terrible price that Ukraine pays for the desire to be a free, independent European state.”
“Thank you to our soldiers — they won this decision,” Yatsenyuk tweeted. “Ukraine is a great country that will inevitably become a member of the EU and, just as inevitably, a member of NATO.”
Ukraine applied for membership less than a week after Russia invaded the country and must undergo a complicated process of many months to be eligible to join the 27-nation bloc.
The EU also granted candidate status to the small nation of Moldova, another former Soviet republic that borders Ukraine and also has territory controlled by pro-Russia separatists. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday called the decision “internal European affairs” that shouldn’t complicate already difficult regional dynamics.
“It is very important for us that all these processes do not bring more problems to us and more problems in the relations of the countries mentioned with us. There are enough of these problems anyway,” Peskov said.
In Pokrovsk, a small town close to the four-month-old war’s frontline in eastern Ukraine, few resident wanted to share their thoughts on EU candidacy as they hurried to collect their daily aid handouts. Those who did said the decision would send a strong message to the Russians trying to seize cities and villages a few miles away.
“The next stop is NATO. There is no way back now. I was born during the USSR, but there is no return (to that)” Pokrovsk resident Valerii Terentyev said. “Ukraine wanted a different thing, and in my opinion it is the right thing.”
The chairman of Ukraine’s parliament said that a path toward EU membership would remind the country’s soldiers that their fight is worth the hardship and won international admiration.
“This is a powerful political message. It will be heard by soldiers in the trenches, every family that was forced to flee the war abroad, everyone who helps bring our victory closer. But it will also be heard in the bunker,” Stefanchuk said.
Encouragement aside, the reality remains that the European Union sometimes is long on words of solidary and support but short on the kind of concerted action that might deter outside threats, even though a treaty obligates EU countries to assist a fellow member facing armed aggression.
To gain EU membership, countries must meet a detailed host of economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles. The EU’s executive arm has indicated that Ukraine also will have to curb entrenched corruption and adopt other government reforms.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the EU’s embrace of Ukraine was “an important symbolic signal, but it’s the beginning of the beginning.”
Some Ukrainians understood that their country still has much to do in order to meet the tough membership criteria.
“We still need to grow” resident Yevhen Zaitsev said. “There is much corruption. There are a lot of lies“
While the EU fast-tracked its consideration of Ukraine’s application for membership, the ongoing war could complicate the country’s ability to fulfill the entry criteria. Russian forces in recent weeks have slowly advanced in their offensive to capture the Donbas region, where pro-Russia separatists have controlled much of the territory for eight years.
Ukrainian forces were ordered to retreat from the besieged city of Sievierodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian-held areas of Luhansk province, to avoid being completely surrounded.
The city has faced relentless Russian bombardment while Ukrainian troops fought the Russians in house-to-house battles before retreating to a huge chemical factory on the city’s edge.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the retreat order was given to prevent encirclement by Russian forces that made gains around Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk in recent days.