Russia hits east Ukraine as war pushes Finland closer to Nato

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Nadiia, the wife of Lubomyr Savchuk, who died on May 9 near the town of Zolote in Luhansk region, at his funeral in the village of Staryi Yarychiv, Lviv, on Thursday   (REUTERS)
Nadiia, the wife of Lubomyr Savchuk, who died on May 9 near the town of Zolote in Luhansk region, at his funeral in the village of Staryi Yarychiv, Lviv, on Thursday (REUTERS)

Russian forces pounded areas in Ukraine’s east on Thursday, including the last pocket of resistance in besieged Mariupol, as a war that is redrawing Europe’s security map pushed Russia’s neighbour Finland closer to joining Nato.

Finland’s president and prime minister said on Thursday that the Nordic country should apply “without delay” for membership in the Western alliance, founded in part to counter the Soviet Union.

The announcement means Finland is all but certain to apply to - and be accepted in - the military alliance whose members are committed to mutual defence, though the process could take months to complete. Neighbouring Sweden could do the same within days.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned the country would take retaliatory “military-technical” steps and said the move would “inflict a serious damage to the Russian-Finnish relations as well as stability and security in Northern Europe”.

Nato’s support of Ukraine - particularly by supplying weapons - has been critical to Kyiv’s surprising success in stymieing Russia’s invasion, which began on February 24.

Many observers thought Moscow’s larger and better-armed military would be hard to stop, but the Ukrainians have bogged Russian troops down and thwarted their goal of overrunning the capital.

Nato members say they are helping Ukraine defend itself but are eager to stress they are not directly involved in the war. But a top Russian official said the West’s supply of weapons and training posed a growing threat the fighting could spill into “an open and direct conflict between Nato and Russia”.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said that “there is always a risk of such conflict turning into a full-scale nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for all”.

Already the war has unleashed staggering destruction, killed thousands and forced millions from their homes, while shattering Europe’s sense of post-Cold War stability.

In the wake of their failure to take Kyiv, Russian forces pulled back and regrouped - and switched their focus to Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, a region where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for eight years.

While Russia’s advance there has been slow, the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces noted on Thursday that Moscow has achieved a “partial success”.

Western officials say Russia has gained ground and taken some villages but has not managed to seize any cities.

Associated Press reporters heard explosions Thursday and saw plumes of smoke near the town of Bakhmut, an area of the Donbas that has seen heavy fighting.

The Ukrainian military said that Russian forces were “storming” two villages near Bakhmut, but the source of the blasts was not immediately clear.

Russian advances in the east follow weeks of their stubborn efforts to push through Ukrainian defences in the Donbas. It is unclear how significant the Russian gains have been.

But any gains in the east may have come at expense of territory elsewhere. Britain’s Defence Ministry said Russia’s focus on the Donbas had left its remaining troops around the north-eastern city of Kharkiv vulnerable to counterattack from Ukrainian forces, which recaptured several towns and villages around the city.

Still, Russian rocket strikes on Thursday killed one person and wounded three in a suburb of Kharkiv, the regional governor said. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has suffered heavy Russian bombardment during the war as Russia sought to encircle it.

Fighting across the east has driven thousands of residents from their homes.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military also said Russian forces had fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian troops in the direction of Zaporizhzhia, which has been a refuge for civilians fleeing Mariupol, and attacked in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions to the north.

Overnight airstrikes in Chernihiv killed three people and wounded 12, according to local media citing emergency services. The regional governor said the strikes on the town of Novhorod-Siverskyi damaged a boarding school, dormitory and administrative building.

In the southern port city of Mariupol, which has seen some of the worst destruction of the war, Ukraine offered to release Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe evacuation of badly wounded fighters trapped inside the Azovstal steel mill, the last redoubt of Ukrainian forces in the ruined city.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that negotiations were under way to release the wounded. She said there were different options, but “none of them is ideal”.

Russia has not confirmed any talks on the subject but seems unlikely to agree to any such swap as the release of the fighters would be a major morale boost for Ukraine.

Russia’s forces have taken control of the rest of the city, which they besieged for weeks, as residents ran short of food, water and medicine, though Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the Mariupol mayor, said on Thursday that troops have resumed water supplies to two neighbourhoods as a test.

“The occupiers turned Mariupol into a medieval ghetto,” said Mayor Vadym Boychenko in comments published by City Hall, as he called for a complete evacuation of the city.

Officials said in recent weeks that about 100,000 residents could still be trapped in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000.

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