GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On Thursday, the European Union agreed to put Ukraine on a path toward membership amid months of war with Russia.

“This is an important step, really signaling to Ukraine that Europeans understand that Ukraine is a European country,” Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told News 8 while she was in Grand Rapids on Friday to receive the 2022 Vandenberg Prize from the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan.

She said this step will provide a “huge incentive” for Ukraine to make the political and economical steps needed for the country to join the union.

Ukraine and its people have wanted EU membership for years, Yovanovitch said, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has been against it because it would “increase Ukraine’s prosperity and stability.”

Amid the new win for Ukraine, the country is still at war with Russia. Yovanovitch said the fighting, which began on Feb. 24 as Russia invaded Ukraine, has turned into a “war against Europe… and the international rules-based systems.”

Since the invasion, Western countries have stepped up to assist Ukraine in its fight by sending weapons.

“Countries are doing far more than anyone would have expected on Feb. 22,” she said. “Between the valiance of the Ukrainian fighters and the Ukrainian people and the atrocities that Russia is committing, I think all of us want to step up.”

Shipments of long-range weapons are starting to arrive in Ukraine and Yovanovitch believes it will help level the playing field, though she expects the fighting to continue through the summer and into the fall.

“I think there’s going to be a natural pause in the fall when the weather gets worse. And then we’ll need to see what the facts on the ground are because that will determine if Russia feels it has an advantage and is ready to negotiate and same for Ukraine,” she said.

As the fighting continues, the United States has moved back into its embassy in Kyiv to continue its diplomatic mission.

“…I think it’s really important to have that person-to-person contact. We’re always in really close touch with Ukrainian leadership — first from Lviv from the west of Ukraine and then from Poland when we withdrew to Poland — but there’s nothing like face-to-face discussions and face-to-face support,” Yovanovitch said.

Representing the United States and its interests in the country is Bridget Brink, an East Grand Rapids native. She was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovitch said that she is a “big fan” of Brink.

“I was thrilled when she was nominated by the president and then approved by the Senate,” she said, adding that she has worked with Brink numerous times over the years. “I think that it’s important to have an ambassador on the ground doing our important diplomatic work.”

When the war does end, Yovanovitch said the country will need to rebuild in the most “constructive way possible so that this time, it is the new Ukraine that the Ukrainian people have been fighting for since its independence.”

~ News 8 reporter Kyle Mitchell contributed to this report.