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Russian war effort faces diplomatic and military obstacles

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — With its military embroiled in bitter conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia also lost diplomatic ground over the weekend as two other European nations edged closer to membership to NATO.

Finland announced on Sunday that it was seeking to join the alliance, saying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly three months ago had changed The security landscape in Europe. Hours later, Sweden’s ruling party endorsed that country’s bid for membership, which could lead to a bid within days.

The moves would be a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has called NATO’s post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe a threat — a threat he cited, before these latest moves, as reason to attack Ukraine. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, meeting senior alliance diplomats in Berlin, said the war “is not going the way 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 any significant territorial gains in eastern Ukraine, the focus of its war effort since Russian forces failed to s seize the capital, kyiv.

Russian and Ukrainian fighters are engaged in a village-by-village battle for eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the Donbass. Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists there for eight years.

Over the weekend, Russian forces hit a chemical plant and 11 high-rise buildings in Siverodonetsk, Donbass, regional governor Serhii Haidaii said. Russian missiles also destroyed “military infrastructure” in Yavoriv district in western Ukraine near the Polish border, the governor of the Lviv region said. Lviv is a gateway for arms supplied by the West to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian army said it had repelled a new Russian offensive in the Donetsk region of Donbass. 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 on Sunday. He said the move was aimed at preventing Russia from sending more troops to attack the cities of Lisichansk and Severodonetsk.

And Ukrainian forces have stopped an attempted Russian advance near the eastern town 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 grim picture for Russia.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence update that the Russian military had lost up to a third of the fighting force it committed to Ukraine in late February and was failing to gain territory substantial.

“Under current conditions, Russia is unlikely to significantly accelerate its pace of progress over the next 30 days,” the ministry said on Twitter.

Russian troops were withdrawing from the vicinity of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and a key military objective at the start of the war. After weeks of continuous shelling and strikes across the Kharkiv region, the regional governor said there had been no shelling in the city for several days.

Despite the lingering threat of missile attacks, many people were returning to their homes in Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities, Anna Malyar, deputy director of the Defense Ministry, said on Sunday. The refugees were not returning just because they thought the war might run out of steam.

“Living somewhere like that, not working, paying for accommodation, eating… they are forced to return for financial reasons,” she said in remarks relayed by the RBK-Ukraine news agency.

In southern Donbass, the port of Mariupol on the Sea of ​​Azov is now largely under Russian control, except for several hundred Ukrainian soldiers who have refused to surrender and remain holed up in the Azovstal steel plant .

Many of their wives called on the global community to secure the release of “the entire garrison” in an online press conference. The women said the troops were suffering from severe shortages of food, water and medicine.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said his country had offered to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians from Azovstal by boat, according to the official state broadcaster TRT.

Ukraine’s invasion has other countries on Russia’s flank fearing that 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 phone call on Saturday that joining NATO would be a “mistake”.

In Sweden, after the ruling Social Democratic Party backed plans for NATO membership on Sunday, the plan was due to be discussed in parliament on Monday, followed by a cabinet announcement.

However, NATO works by consensus and potential offers from the Nordic countries have been questioned due to Turkish concerns. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he discussed Turkey’s concerns at the NATO meeting, particularly Sweden’s and Finland’s alleged support for Kurdish rebel groups and their restrictions on arms sales to Turkey.

But during a visit to Sweden on Sunday, U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Finland and Sweden would be “significant additions” to NATO and that the United States should quickly ratify their membership. McConnell is leading a delegation of GOP senators to the area. They made a surprise visit to kyiv on Saturday in a show of support.

Ukraine also celebrated a morale-boosting victory in the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night. Folk-rap ensemble Kalush Orchestra won the glitzy pan-European competition with their song “Stefania,” which became an anthem among Ukrainians during the war.

Zelenskyy vowed his nation would claim the usual winner’s honor of hosting the next annual competition.

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

The band’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk, told a press conference on Sunday that the musicians were “ready to fight” when they returned home. The Ukrainian government prohibits men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, but the six members of the all-male group received special permission to travel to Italy to represent Ukraine in the competition.


McQuillan reported from Lviv. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa and other AP staff around the world contributed to this report.


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