The European Union’s ambassador to Ukraine has said the bloc cannot allow a potential frozen conflict with Russia to derail Kyiv’s membership ambitions.

Matti Maasikas, an Estonian diplomat who has been the bloc’s representative to Kyiv since 2019, told Newsweek on the sidelines of the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn that Ukraine is moving “very quickly” on its path to EU accession, but that its journey will still be a long one.

Regardless, he said, the bloc must not allow Russian pressure or a frozen conflict to deny Ukrainian membership, as some fear may prove to be the case for Kyiv’s NATO ambitions.

“I am convinced that Ukraine will be able to liberate all its territories, and to brush off all the possibilities for any frozen anything,” Maasikas said. “But if you want to presume this to be the case. If in that situation the EU would hesitate, that would mean that the EU would cede some of its sovereign decision rights to a third country. And that ain’t gonna happen.”

EU Ambassador to Ukraine Matti Maasikas Izyum
Matti Maasikas, the European Union’s ambassador to Ukraine, attends the site of a mass burial in a forest during exhumation on September 23, 2022 in Izyum, Ukraine. Maasikas told Newsweek that Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories should not prevent Kyiv’s EU accession.
Oleksii Samsonov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry by email to request comment.

Ukraine was granted EU candidate status in June 2022, its long-held membership goal galvanized by Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in February. Now, Ukraine is working through seven recommendations issued by the EU, the fulfillment of which will open the door for formal accession talks.

Kyiv wants the talks to begin this year, a goal thought by many observers to be ambitious given the labyrinthine EU accession process.

Maasikas, though, said talks in 2023 were not off the table. “All very speculative,” he told Newsweek. “Of course, most of it—if not almost everything—depends on the Ukrainian homework.”

“But if that all goes well, the autumn enlargement report may propose further steps, and the logical next step would be the opening of the talks. And then it goes to the member states for unanimous agreement.”

“It’s not to be excluded,” Maasikas added. “But everything needs to [go to plan].”

The EU Waiting Room

Ukraine has been moving fast by the EU’s glacial standards. “All the European records have been beaten in terms of the speed of this process,” Maasikas said. But member states and bloc officials have made clear this does not mean there will be any special treatment for Kyiv.

“The Ukrainian leadership does not demand a fast track or cutting corners,” Maasikas said. “They very well understand that if one wants to be an EU member state, and a successful one, that’s a universal experience from previous enlargements. The better the acceding country is prepared, the easier it is for the same country to operate within.”

“You may have noticed that there are no longer statements by Ukrainian political leadership saying, ‘We want to be members this year, or in two years’ time,’ or so on,” Maasikas said. “At the same time, setting yourself goals—and ambitious ones—helps to focus your mind.”

Kyiv will be hoping its experience does not echo that of North Macedonia and Albania, which spent 19 years as candidates without beginning accession talks. But even opening talks is no guarantee of a rapid resolution. Turkey, for example, opened formal accession negotiations in 2005, and remains a non-EU state.

Maasikas, who was part of the Foreign Ministry team that worked on Estonia’s own accession to the EU, said he sees “a similar atmosphere, a similar determination in Ukraine” to when Tallinn was preparing to join. “That’s really good,” he said.

But as to when Ukraine might actually be ready, Maasikas replied: “Nobody could responsibly give you any date.”

Ukraine and EU flags fly in Brussels
Ukrainian and European Union flags fly side by side in front of the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarters, to mark the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2023 in Brussels, Belgium. Ukraine wants to become a member of the bloc but faces a long accession process.
Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Ukraine is now working to implement measures related to the EU’s seven areas of recommendation: the selection of judges for the constitutional court; judicial reform; the fight against corruption; money laundering; anti-oligarch legislation; new media laws; and ensuring the rights of national minorities.

“Some are easier to measure against more concrete benchmarks than others,” Maasikas said. “Take the judiciary reform. I’m confident that within two weeks, the high qualification commission of judges—the selective body to propose judges for nomination to fill the thousands of vacancies—will be set up. And then you can see the recommendation of the judicial reforms is done.”

“There are those like building a credible track record in the fight against corruption, which is not that easy to measure. However, there as well, lots of things have been done by the heads of anti-corruption agencies, nominated after fairly transparent selection processes done according to best practices that we have ever had.”

“About money laundering—where the standards were set pretty high in these recommendations—is maybe one where, in terms of the concrete steps to be taken, it’s probably even more challenging than some others.”

“And the constitutional court judge’s nomination recommendation process. That of course goes deeply into the issue of sovereignty. Because what could be more about sovereignty than checking your laws against the constitution? It was always [going] to be a tough one. And it still is.”

Political Will

Not all EU member states want Kyiv in the club. Austrian officials have said they do not think Ukraine is ready, while even nations that have sent weapons to Kyiv—for example Portugal and Denmark—were reportedly against offering the country candidate status in 2022.

Maasikas acknowledged the complications of reaching unanimous consensus between the bloc’s 27 nations.

“In the biggest, and if you will, gravest issues, the EU is very united and has been united throughout this full-scale war because the situation is so grave,” he said.

“That unity applies to all the decisions we have taken. In the area of common foreign security policy, sanctions, enlargement, all decisions need to be taken by unanimity. And they have been taken by unanimity, because the EU has risen to the to the challenge. And that gives me hope for the next possible steps.”

“The EU gives hope, the EU symbolizes hope for Ukrainians, including to those who are fighting on the front line,” Maasikas added. “President [Volodymyr] Zelensky has repeatedly made that case and all the all the sociology proves that. And that also gives a sense of responsibility to the EU.”

Ukraine soldiers train for counteroffensive Donbas
Ukrainian soldiers train for the planned spring counteroffensive against Russian troops in the Donbas region, Ukraine, on April 26, 2023. Ukraine is hoping to liberate all occupied territory and subsequently to join NATO and the European Union.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images

“The frequency of visits and meetings at the highest political level should serve as one element of proof of the EU being aware of this responsibility. And we are working together with the Ukrainians to show soon that those recommendations would be fully fulfilled, and then possibly new steps can be discussed.”

Ukraine sits on Europe’s geographically edge, but is no longer on its political fringes. The depth of Russian brutality has arguably done more to promote Ukrainian accession to the EU and NATO than any of Kyiv’s own diplomatic efforts could have.

Maasikas’ term will end this summer. Though he will not be in office when Ukraine joins the EU bloc, the ambassador said he is confident of eventual expansion. But how does he hope to leave the project? “I want to be on the Maidan [Square in Kyiv] on victory day,” Maasikas said.