EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen was in Kyiv Thursday to work out a roadmap with the war-torn country for its long-standing aspiration of joining the European Union. Her trip coincided with a meeting between Vladimir Putin and his increasingly close ally Chinese leader Xi Jinping in ex-Soviet Uzbekistan, where the Russian leader praised Beijing’s “balanced” stance on the war. It also comes as Ukrainian forces consolidate gains against Russian forces in the east of the country in a dramatic offensive aided by Western weapons. Von der Leyen said Thursday’s visit was her third to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February, but this one was different. “So much has changed. Ukraine is now an EU candidate,” she said on social media. “I’ll discuss with (President Volodymyr) Zelensky and (Prime Minister) Denys Shmygal how to continue getting our economies and people closer while Ukraine progresses towards accession,” she said. Ukraine gained EU candidacy status in June at the same time as ex-Soviet Moldova, which borders Ukraine and like its neighbour has had Russian troops stationed in an eastern breakaway region. The historic vote angered Moscow, which has tried to retain political and military influence in both countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. EU countries have staunchly supported Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February by hitting Russia with waves of economic penalties. And many members of the bloc have supplied Kyiv with advanced weapons that have helped Ukrainian forces in recent weeks recapture swathes of territory from Russia. Von der Leyen said just ahead of her trip that the successive waves of EU sanctions against Russia would remain and that Europeans must keep their resolve against Moscow. “I want to make it very clear, the sanctions are here to stay,” she told the European Parliament. The Kremlin maintains that Russia has weathered the economic penalties and Moscow has responded by reducing or halting entirely gas flows to European countries. With winter fast approaching, this has forced the EU to source alternative supplies, agree plans to cut consumption and roll out financial support in the face of skyrocketing prices. Ukraine and its allies have been buoyed by gains in the eastern Kharkiv region that borders Russia over recent days and Zelensky promised an overall Ukrainian “victory” while visiting the crucial hub of Izyum recaptured this week. Russia’s defence ministry said Thursday its forces were carrying out high-precision strikes in areas recaptured by Kyiv in Kharkiv. Ukraine’s forces have also posted slower, but steady gains in the southern Kherson region near the Black Sea. The Ukrainian presidency said on Thursday that intense fighting was ongoing around that southern front, adding that the military situation “remains extremely difficult.” Local officials in the region around Zelensky’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih reported fresh Russian strikes Thursday after attacks damaged a dam and saw dozens of homes flooded. In the eastern Donetsk region, which has been partially controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014, fresh shelling killed two civilians and left another 13 wounded. In the Ukrainian-held Donetsk town of Bakhmut, AFP journalists said streets were deserted and the sound of nearby artillery was audible in the town’s centre. Flames were still licking a residential building hit by Russian strikes overnight and plumes of thick smoke were rising as firefighters battled the blaze. Ukraine launched a mandatory drive to evacuate civilians from the eastern industrial region, where its forces have also announced gains, ahead of the counter-offensive but many civilians remain.