KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's president said at a high-level summit with European Union officials Monday that his country will be able to meet conditions to apply for EU membership within five years.
While Kiev looks to the distant future, however, anxiety is heightening over the souring security situation in the east of the country, where fighting continues to rage between government and separatist forces.
Speaking at the start of talks in Kiev, President Petro Poroshenko called on the EU to support his initiative to deploy international peacekeepers in war-stricken regions. European leaders have to date resisted such appeals.
Guiding Ukraine toward integration with Europe was at the heart of the movement that culminated in last year's toppling of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who provoked anger by canceling plans to deepen trade ties with EU.
In an opinion piece published in the Guardian newspaper before the summit, Poroshenko described the revolt against Yanukovych as "an affirmation of the European values of fairness and the rule of law."
Ukraine last year reversed track and sealed an association agreement with the EU. European Council President Donald Tusk said at a news conference after the talks that Brussels wanted a "deep and comprehensive free trade agreement to apply as of Jan. 1."
Poroshenko said Brussels had an important role to play in ensuring that Ukraine's course toward the EU was smooth.
"Help from the EU should enable strengthening the faith of Ukrainians in the irreversibility of Ukraine's future in the EU and the need to endure a sometimes painful but not insurmountable process," he said.
Efforts to reform Ukraine's corruption-ridden economy to become more compliant with European standards have been slow, however, since Poroshenko came to power.
Ukraine has qualified for billions in international credit by agreeing to implement deep structural reforms and slash government spending.
The visit to Kiev by top European officials, who also included EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, came as the security situation remains tense in the east.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said Monday that the town of Avdiivka, near the rebel region's largest city of Donetsk, was hit by Grad rocket fire, the first use of that weapon in the conflict since February. Casualty information was not immediately available.
International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a daily report that they saw intense clashes Sunday at a flashpoint in the seaside village of Shyrokyne. Monitors described the clashes as the worst it had seen since fighting began in the area in mid-February 2015.
The mission said it observed dozens of tank shots and the deployment of plenty of other weapons proscribed under a February peace deal agreed by the warring sides and overseen by France, Germany and Russia.
U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said in Washington that Russia has deployed more air defense systems into eastern Ukraine and positioned several near the front lines.
Kiev would like to see international peacekeepers on the ground, but that proposal has been greeted with hostility by Russia and coolness by Western countries.
Tusk said he was concerned about the renewed unrest and urged Russia to abide by its commitments to uphold the peace process.
Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.