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Ukraine admits ‘threat of a tactical Russian victory’ in Donbas as nation moves closer to EU membership: Live updates – USA TODAY

Surging Russian forces overwhelmed two more villages in eastern Ukraine on Thursday and closed in on the city of Lysychansk amid a slow but systematic advancement through the industrial heart of Ukraine.

Lysychansk and small areas of sister city Severodonetsk represent the last hurdle in  Russia’s quest to control the Luhansk region. The fall of Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka comes one day after Russia rolled into the villages of Pidlisne and Myrna Dolyna.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, acknowledged the “threat of a tactical Russian victory (in the region) is there, but they haven’t done it yet.”

The regions of Luhansk and Donetsk make up the Donbas region, home of Russian separatist “republic.” After its failure to take the capital of Kyiv in the early days of the war, Russia has made no secret of its redirected efforts to control the Donbas.

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Latest developments:

►A high-ranking Ukraine official said Wednesday she’s “100%” certain all EU nations will approve Ukraine’s candidacy for membership as early as Thursday. (More below)

►U.S. high-mobility missile artillery systems (HIMARS) that have arrived in Ukraine mean “summer will be hot” for Russians, Ukraine says. (More below)

►Germany activated the second phase of its three-stage emergency plan for natural gas supplies Thursday, warning that winter energy supplies are a concern due to dwindling deliveries from Russia.

►EU leaders will debate Thursday a recommendation for the European Commission to grant Moldova — a tiny, non-NATO country that borders Ukraine — EU candidate status.

Ukraine: US missile systems promise ‘hot summer’ for Russians

U.S. high-mobility missile artillery systems (HIMARS) have arrived in Ukraine, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said. The Ukrainian military has already undergone special training for this weapons in Europe, he said. 

The U.S. provided ammunition that can hit targets from more than 40 miles away – valuable but not the longer-range missiles sought by Ukraine that could reach close to 200 miles.

“Thank you to my colleague and friend @SecDef  Lloyd J. Austin III for these powerful tools!” Reznikov said on Twitter. “Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them.”

Ukraine official confident EU will accept candidacy for membership

EU nations appeared poised to approve Ukraine’s candidacy for membership as early as Thursday, the first day of the European Union leaders summit in Belgium.

“This is a decisive moment for the EU,” said European Council President Charles Michel. “I am confident that today we will grant candidate status to Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Olha Stefanishyna, said she’s “100%” certain all EU nations will approve Ukraine’s candidacy as required. EU candidate status, however, doesn’t mean Ukraine is guaranteed membership and does not provide the military guarantees provided by NATO membership.

Ukraine has already implemented about 70% of EU rules, norms and standards, European officials have said. But they warned that the country still needs political and economic reforms, pointing to corruption. Stefanishyna said she thinks Ukraine could become an EU member within years, not the decades that some European officials have forecast.

“We’re already very much integrated in the European Union,” she said, adding: “We want to be a strong and competitive member state, so it may take from two to 10 years.”

Estonian PM Kaja Kallas says don’t sleep on Russia

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says the West shouldn’t underestimate Russia’s military capabilities in Ukraine, saying Moscow is in it for the long haul as the war enters its fifth month. 

Kallas said Europe should ensure that those committing war crimes and attempted genocide are prosecuted, noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin escaped punishment for annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region that killed over 14,000 people even before this year’s war began.

“I’ve heard talks that, you know, there is no threat anymore because they have exhausted themselves. No, they haven’t,” she said of the Russian military, which failed to take Kyiv in the early stages of the war and is now concentrating its firepower in the east.

Contributing: The Associated Press