Ukraine: Russians hold back because Finland is in favor of NATO membership

KYIV, Ukraine –

Nearly three months after Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine, its military faced a mired war, the prospect of a bigger NATO and a defending country buoyed by its victory in a hugely popular pan-European music competition on Sunday.

Top NATO diplomats, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, met on Sunday in Berlin as Finland announced it would apply to join the Western alliance. Sweden’s ruling party plans to announce its position on NATO membership later on Sunday.

The two non-aligned Nordic nations becoming part of the alliance would represent an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who justified the war in Ukraine on the grounds that it was a response to NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.

Western military officials said on Sunday that Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine, believed to have been launched with the aim of taking Kiev and overthrowing the Ukrainian government, had slowed to a snail’s pace. They said the invading Russian army had lost up to a third of its fighting strength since February.

“The brutal invasion (by) Russia is losing steam,” said NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana. “We know that with the bravery of the Ukrainian people and army, and with our help, Ukraine can win this war.”

Ukraine, meanwhile, celebrated a morale-boosting victory in the Eurovision Song Contest. Folk rap group Kalush Orchestra won the flashy Eurovision TV contest with their song “Stefania”, which became a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war. The votes of viewers across Europe cemented the victory.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised that his nation would claim the customary honor of hosting the next annual competition.

“Step by step, we are forcing the occupiers to leave Ukrainian land,” Zelenskyy said.

Russian and Ukrainian fighters are engaged in a fierce battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas. Ukraine’s most experienced and best equipped soldiers are based in eastern Ukraine, where they have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists for eight years.

Russian forces, however. continues to experience “consistently high levels of attrition” while failing to reach any substantial territory, the UK Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence update on Sunday.

“The Russian offensive in Donbas has lost momentum and has been significantly delayed,” the ministry said. said on twitteradding that the forces are suffering “continuous low morale and reduced combat effectiveness”.

“Under current conditions, it is unlikely that Russia will drastically accelerate its rate of advance in the next 30 days,” the ministry said.

Assessments of Russia’s war performance by Ukraine’s supporters came as Russian troops withdrew from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, after bombing it for weeks.

The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million lies just 80 kilometers (50 mi) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, and was a key military objective early in the war, when Moscow expected capture and hold major cities.

Ukraine’s military said Moscow was now focused on securing supply routes as it launched mortar, artillery and air strikes in an attempt to deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications in the country’s east.

Ukrainian troops are clearing villages on the outskirts of Kharkiv after pushing the Russians back, and some villagers were returning.

“War has shifted to a new level of ranged artillery combat – we shoot them, they shoot us,” said a Ukrainian commander who gave only his first name, Serhii.

Russia is also attacking railways, factories and other infrastructure across Ukraine. A Russian missile hit “military infrastructure facilities” in the Yavoriv district of western Ukraine, close to the Polish border. Sunday morning.

There was no immediate information about dead or injured, Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytskyy posted on the messaging app Telegram.

Russia is targeting rail facilities and other critical infrastructure in western Ukraine, a major gateway for NATO-supplied weapons. Western officials said that despite the attacks, there had been no appreciable impact on Ukraine’s ability to resupply its forces.

After failing to capture Kiev following the February 24 invasion, Putin shifted his focus eastward to Donbas, aiming to seize territory not yet occupied by Moscow-backed separatists.

Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move in the east, hampering efforts to get a complete picture of the fighting. But it seems to be a back-and-forth path without major advances on either side.

In his Saturday night speech, Zelenskyy said that “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and that Russian troops “are still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious”.

In southern Donbas, the port of Mariupol on the Sea of ‚Äč‚ÄčAzov is now largely under Russian control, save for a few hundred Ukrainian soldiers who refused to surrender and remained in hiding at the Azovstal steel factory.

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of Mariupol reportedly managed to reach the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the withdrawal of 60 seriously wounded soldiers from the steelworks.

Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the country had offered to evacuate Ukrainian soldiers and civilians wounded by Azovstal’s ship, according to official state broadcaster TRT. Kalin said Russian and Ukrainian officials had not given Turkey a clear answer on the evacuation plan, but that it was still on the table.

The invasion of Ukraine has left other countries along Russia’s flank worried that they might be next. The government of long-neutral Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) land border and the Gulf of Finland with Russia, formally announced Sunday that it would apply for NATO membership.

“This is a historic day,” President Sauli Niinisto, announcing Finland’s decision alongside Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

Sweden’s Social Democratic Party is expected to announce its decision on NATO membership on Sunday. If it turns out in favour, as is expected, an application to join the western military alliance could happen in a few days.

NATO operates by consensus, and possible proposals from the Nordic countries were questioned on Friday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country “does not have a favorable opinion”.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused the two countries of supporting Kurdish rebel groups, but suggested that Turkey would not necessarily stop them from joining NATO.

“These are the issues we need to talk about, of course, with our NATO allies,” he said.

In a phone call on Saturday, Putin told the Finnish president that there were no threats to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” and would “negatively affect Finnish-Russian relations.”

Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, said joining NATO would help secure peace for Finland.

“We’ve had wars with Russia and we don’t want that kind of future for ourselves or our children,” she said.

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Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa and other AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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