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BRUSSELS — European Union leaders on Thursday agreed to make Ukraine a candidate for membership in the bloc, a symbolic win for Kyiv amid the war with Russia and another sign of how the conflict is reshaping the world.

Candidate status does not confer membership, which could still be decades away. But the decision is a historic step for Europe — and sends a signal to Russia.

Heads of state and government, meeting in Brussels for a two-day European Council, also agreed to candidacy for Moldova. Ukraine and Moldova will both be required to meet certain conditions as candidates to move forward. Leaders said Georgia will become a candidate after meeting conditions.

“Today is a good day for Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. “This decision strengthens us all. It strengthens Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, in the face of Russian imperialism. And it strengthens the EU.”

The Kremlin claims that Ukraine, a sovereign state, is not a real country and wants to bring it into Moscow’s sphere of influence by force. Vsevolod Chentsov, the head of Ukraine’s mission to the E.U., said a pathway to membership in the bloc sends the message that Ukraine is a very real country with a future of its choosing.

For Ukrainians worn out by months of fighting, E.U. candidate status is a “gesture of trust,” Chentsov said this week, and a sign that “the E.U. believes Ukraine can do this.”

The E.U. has granted Ukraine candidate status. Here’s what it means.

Leaders, diplomats and officials expressed surprise that member states agreed on Ukraine, as well as Moldova and Georgia, after years of debate and deadlock.

“Just a few months ago, I was really skeptical that we would reach this position,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “I am very glad that we are there.”

An E.U. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said bloc leaders had moved more on enlargement in the last two weeks “than in the last 25 years.”

Ukraine has long wanted to join the EU. Days into the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for an expedited path to membership, casting candidacy as a matter of survival. While Baltic states and other eastern European countries backed the idea, many member states pushed back.

Through the spring, leaders from those countries appeared happy to pose with Zelensky, but hesitant to offer Ukraine a path to membership.

“None of the 27 would say right in the face of the president ‘no,’” Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, told The Washington Post on a June 9 visit to Brussels. “But what is happening behind the scenes is clear willingness to put obstacles into the process.”

Zelensky pressed E.U. leaders to do more. Granting Ukraine candidate status would “prove that words about the longing of the Ukrainian people to be a part of the European family are not just words,” he said in a June 10 speech. The next day, von der Leyen made a surprise visit to Kyiv to finalize her assessment of the country’s candidacy.

What is NATO, and why isn’t Ukraine a member?

As von der Leyen continued to tout Ukraine’s readiness, Ukrainian diplomats toured European capitals to keep the pressure on. Some holdouts, wary of being seen as standing in Ukraine’s way, began to downplay their previous skepticism.

Last week, the leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv and voiced support for Ukrainian candidacy. The next day, the commission recommended candidate status. By the beginning of this week, E.U. diplomats were calling it a “done deal.”

But the same diplomats caution that there’s a long road ahead. The commission last week laid out six steps for Ukraine to meet before it can move forward. Among them: implementing laws to ensure the selection of qualified judges; limiting the influence of oligarchs; and improving its track record on investigations, prosecutions and convictions for corruption.

With fighting raging in Ukraine’s east, Ukrainian officials acknowledge that it will be difficult to move ahead with some reforms. “Inevitably there will be issues that should be tackled after the shooting stops,” Chentsov said.

The challenges are not limited to Ukraine. Though E.U. nations have decided to create a path to membership for three of Russia’s neighbors, appetite for enlargement remains modest. Member states, having made a symbolic gesture, might now look for ways to slow things down.

Turkey applied in 1987 and remains a candidate. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have all been in membership talks with the E.U. for years.

Europe rallies behind Ukraine. But fatigue is around the corner.

A draft of the summit’s conclusions obtained by The Washington Post suggests Ukrainian membership could depend on the “capacity” of the bloc “to absorb new members.” Some want to overhaul E.U. decision-making before letting any newcomers in.

If Ukraine joined now, it would become the fifth-most-populous member state, and by far the poorest. Ukraine’s per capita GDP last year was $4,872, less than half that of the current poorest member, Bulgaria, at $11,683, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.

Some members states, particularly in Western Europe, remain concerned that a large new member could further complicate decision-making and tip the balance of power toward Central and Eastern Europe.

Leaders planned to meet again Thursday evening to discuss a French proposal for a “European Political Community” and Friday to discuss the impact of Russia’s war on food supplies, the economy and other issues.

World leaders, including President Biden, are scheduled to meet in Madrid next week for a NATO summit focused on the war in Ukraine and the future of the alliance.