By JOHN LEICESTER
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- A Ukrainian official overseeing the country's push to join the European Union said Wednesday that she's "100%" certain all 27 EU nations will approve Ukraine's EU candidacy during a summit this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed similar optimism, calling it a "crucial moment" for Ukraine. Ukraine's membership bid is the top order of business for EU leaders meeting in Brussels.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Olha Stefanishyna said the decision could come as soon as Thursday, when the leaders' summit starts.
Stefanishyna said the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark had been skeptical about starting accession talks with Ukraine while it is fighting Russia's invasion but are now supportive. Asked how confident she was that Ukraine would be accepted as an EU candidate, she said: "The day before the summit starts, I can say 100%."
EU candidate status, which can be granted only if the existing member countries agree unanimously, is the first step toward membership. It does not provide any security guarantees or an automatic right to join the bloc.
Ukraine's full membership will depend on whether the war-torn country can satisfy political and economic conditions. Potential newcomers need to demonstrate that they meet standards on democratic principles and must absorb 80,000 pages of rules covering everything from trade and immigration to fertilizers and the rule of law.
"We're already very much integrated in the European Union," Stefanishyna said. "We want to be a strong and competitive member state, so it may take from two to 10 years."
To help candidates, the bloc can provide technical and financial assistance. European officials have said that Ukraine has already implemented about 70% of the EU rules, norms and standards, but have also pointed to corruption and the need for deep political and economic reforms.
In other developments:
-- Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said a Ukrainian photojournalist and a soldier accompanying him appear to have been "coldly executed" during the first weeks of the war in Ukraine as they searched in Russian-occupied woods for a missing camera drone.
--Russian forces have captured three villages in the heavily contested eastern region of Ukraine, a local official said.
--The Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Russian forces killed up to 500 Ukrainian servicemen in high-precision strikes Tuesday against a Mykolaiv shipbuilding plant. The ministry also said that Ukrainian forces evacuated up to 30 wounded and eight dead American and British foreign fighters from near Mykolaivka, in the separatist Donetsk People's Republic.
--Russian officials said a drone strike caused a fire at an oil refinery plant in southwestern Russia on Wednesday. The blaze engulfed a piece of machinery at the Novoshakhtinsk plant in the Rostov-on-Don region. Authorities said that dozens of firefighters quickly contained the fire and no one was hurt.
--Turkey's defense ministry said Wednesday that a Turkish ship was allowed to leave the Russian-occupied Azov Sea port of Mariupol following talks between Turkish and Russian defense ministry officials. A ministry statement said the Turkish freighter, Azov Concord, was the first foreign ship to be allowed to leave Mariupol. The ministry did not say what the freighter was carrying. The war has halted critical grain exports by sea. Turkish and Russian military delegations met in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss a possible deal for the shipment of Ukraine's grain through the Black Sea.