KYIV – With its military bogged down in a grinding conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia also lost diplomatic ground over the weekend as two more European nations moved closer to joining NATO.
Finland announced Sunday that it was seeking to join the alliance, saying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly three months ago had changed Europe’s security landscape. Several hours later, Sweden’s governing party endorsed that country’s bid for membership, which could lead to an application in days.
Those moves would be a serious blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has called NATO’s post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe a threat — one that, before these latest moves, he cited as a reason for attacking Ukraine. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, meeting with top diplomats from the alliance in Berlin, said the war “is not going as Moscow had planned.”
“Ukraine can win this war,” he said, adding that NATO must continue to offer military support to Kyiv.
Meanwhile, Russia inflicted damage but failed to make significant territorial gains in eastern Ukraine, the focus of its war effort since Russian forces failed to seize the capital, Kyiv.
Russian and Ukrainian fighters are engaged in a village-by-village battle for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas. Ukrainian soldiers have fought Moscow-backed separatists there for eight years.
Over the weekend, Russian forces hit a chemical plant and 11 high-rise buildings in Siverodonetsk, in the Donbas, regional governor Serhii Haidaii said. Russian missiles also destroyed “military infrastructure facilities” in the Yavoriv district of western Ukraine, near the Polish border, the governor of the Lviv region said. Lviv is a gateway for Western-supplied weapons to Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military said it held off a renewed Russian offensive in the Donetsk area of the Donbas. Ukraine also blew up two railway bridges that had been seized by Russian forces in the eastern region of Luhansk, Ukraine’s Special Operations Command said Sunday. It said the move was to prevent Russia from bringing in more troops to attack the towns of Lisichansk and Severodonetsk.
And Ukrainian forces stopped an attempted Russian advance near the eastern city of Izyum, the governor of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, Oleh Sinegubov, reported.
The Ukrainian claims could not be independently verified, but Western officials also painted a somber picture for Russia.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update that the Russian army had lost up to one-third of the combat strength it committed to Ukraine in late February and was failing to gain any substantial territory.
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Russian troops were in retreated from around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and a key military objective earlier in the war. After weeks of bombardment, the regional governor said there had been no shelling in the city for several days.
Russia continued to strike the wider Kharkiv region, but Ukrainian reported gains.
One Ukrainian battalion fighting in the region reached the border with Russia on Sunday and made a victorious video there addressed to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In the video posted on Facebook by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, a dozen fighters stood around a blue-and-yellow post, Ukraine’s colors.
One explained that the unit went “to the dividing line with the Russian Federation, the occupying country. Mr. President, we have reached it. We are here.”
Other fighters made victory signs and raised their fists.
Despite the continuing threat of missile attacks, many people were returning home to Kharkiv and other cities around Ukraine, Anna Malyar, deputy head of the Ministry of Defense, said on Sunday. Refugees were returning not just because of optimism that the war might ebb.
“Living somewhere just like that, not working, paying for housing, eating … they are forced to return for financial reasons,” she said in remarks carried by the RBK-Ukraine news agency.
In the southern Donbas, the Azov Sea port of Mariupol is now largely under Russian control, except for several hundred Ukrainian troops who have refused to surrender and remain holed up in the Azovstal steel factory.
Many of their wives called on the global community to secure the release of “the entire garrison” during an online news conference. The women said the troops suffered severe food, water and medicine shortages.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said his country had offered to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians by ship from Azovstal, according to official state broadcaster TRT.
The invasion of Ukraine has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they could be next. Finland shares both a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) land border and the Gulf of Finland with Russia. Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in a Saturday phone call that joining NATO would be an “error.”
In Sweden, after the ruling Social Democratic Party on Sunday backed plans to join NATO, the plan was to be discussed Monday in parliament, with an announcement by the Cabinet to follow.
However, NATO operates by consensus, and the Nordic nations’ potential bids were thrown into question over concerns from Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had discussed Turkey’s concerns at the NATO meeting, especially Sweden and Finland’s alleged support for Kurdish rebel groups and their restrictions on weapons sales to Turkey.
But during a Sunday visit to Sweden, U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Finland and Sweden would be “important additions” to NATO and that the U.S. should swiftly ratify their membership. McConnell is leading a delegation of GOP senators to the region. They made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Saturday in a show of support.
Ukraine also celebrated a morale-boosting victory on Saturday night in the Eurovision Song Contest. The folk-rap ensemble Kalush Orchestra won the glitzy pan-European competition with its song “Stefania,” which has become an anthem among Ukrainians during the war.
Zelenskyy vowed his nation would claim the customary winner’s honor of hosting the next annual competition.
“Step by step, we are forcing the occupiers to leave the Ukrainian land,” Zelenskyy said.
The band’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk, said at a news conference Sunday that the musicians were “ready to fight” when they return home. Ukraine’s government prohibits men between 18 and 60 from leaving the country, but the all-male band’s six members received special permission to go to Italy to represent Ukraine in the contest.
McQuillan reported from Lviv. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa and other AP staffers around the world contributed to this report.
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