Russia attacks eastern Ukraine, Finland moves toward NATO membership

kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces attacked areas in eastern Ukraine Thursday, including the last pocket of resistance in besieged Mariupol, as a war that is redrawing Europe’s security map pushes against Russia’s neighbor Finland. , closer to joining NATO.

Despite the world-shaking repercussions of the invasion, the conflict on the ground continued, with Ukraine’s military retaking some towns and villages in the north-east of the country, but acknowledging that Russian forces have had “successful success”. partial” further south in the industrial heart of the east. of the Donbas.

Finland’s president and prime minister said 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 almost certain to apply and be accepted into the military alliance whose members are committed to mutual defense, though the process could take months to complete. Neighboring Sweden could do the same in a matter of days.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned that the country would take retaliatory “military-technical” measures, saying the move would “inflict serious damage on Russian-Finnish relations, as well as stability and security in Northern Europe.” “.

NATO’s support for Ukraine, particularly through arms supplies, has been central to kyiv’s surprising success in thwarting Russia’s invasion, which began on February 24. Many observers thought it would be difficult to stop Moscow’s largest and best-armed army, but the Ukrainians have stalled. The Russian troops shot down and frustrated their objective of invading the capital.

NATO members say they are helping Ukraine defend itself but are keen to emphasize that they are not directly involved in the war. But a senior Russian official said the supply of weapons and training from the West posed a growing threat that the fighting could turn into “an open and direct conflict between NATO and Russia.”

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

The war has already unleashed staggering destruction, killing thousands and forcing millions from their homes, while shattering Europe’s post-Cold War sense of stability.

In the wake of their failure to take kyiv, Russian forces backed off and regrouped, shifting their focus to Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, a region where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for eight years. While Russia’s progress there has been slow, the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said Thursday that Moscow has achieved “partial success.”

Western officials say Russia gained ground and seized some villages, but failed 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 Russian forces were “storming” two villages near Bakhmut, but the source of the explosions was not immediately clear.

The Russian advances in the east follow weeks of their dogged efforts to push through the Ukrainian defenses in the Donbas. It is not clear how significant the Russian gains have been.

But any gains in the east may have been at the expense of territory elsewhere. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia’s focus on Donbas had left its remaining troops around the northeastern city of Kharkiv vulnerable to a counterattack by Ukrainian forces, who recaptured several towns and villages around the city.

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

The fighting in the east has driven thousands of residents from their homes. Evacuees wiped away tears as they loaded their children and belongings onto buses and vans to flee.

“It’s terrible there now. We were leaving under the missiles,” said Tatiana Kravstova, who left the city of Siversk with her 8-year-old son Artiom on a bus headed for the central city of Dnipro. “I don’t know where they were pointing, but they were targeting civilians.”

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

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

The military governor of the Kryvyi Rih region in southern Ukraine has accused Russia of using banned cluster bombs and phosphorus munitions. The claim could not be immediately verified. Ukraine has previously accused Russian forces of using such munitions in the Donbas, and Ukrainian authorities have launched investigations into their use.

In the southern port city of Mariupol, which has suffered some of the worst destruction of the war, Ukraine offered to free Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe evacuation of seriously wounded fighters trapped inside the Azovstal steelworks, the last stronghold. from Ukraine. forces in the ruined city.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said negotiations were under way to release the wounded. She said there were different options, but “none of them are ideal.” Russia has not confirmed any talks on the matter, but it seems unlikely that it would agree to such an exchange, as the release of the fighters would be a huge morale boost for Ukraine.

Russian forces took control of the rest of the city, which they besieged for weeks, as residents ran out of food, water and medicine, though Petro Andriushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, said on Thursday that troops had resumed supplying water to two neighborhoods as proof.

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

Authorities have said in recent weeks that around 100,000 residents could still be trapped in Mariupol, which had a population of more than 400,000 before the war. Russian and Ukrainian authorities have periodically agreed to ceasefires to evacuate residents and repeatedly blamed each other when those efforts failed.

Putin reaffirmed Russia’s determination to ensure that territory in the Donbas held by Moscow-backed separatists never returns to Ukraine in a congratulatory message Thursday to the head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.

On the eve of its invasion, Russia recognized the separatists’ claim to independence in Lugansk, as well as in Donetsk’s other Donbas region. Moscow tried to justify its offensive by claiming, without evidence, that Ukraine planned to attack areas held by separatists and that it intervened to protect people in those regions.

Putin also said on Thursday that Russia would resist harsh Western sanctions, imposed in response to the invasion, even though he said they were sparking a global economic crisis.

Speaking to officials during a meeting on the economy, Putin said Western nations have been “driven by oversized political ambitions and Russophobia” to introduce restrictions that “harm their own economies and the well-being of their citizens” as well as the people. in the poorest countries in the world.

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Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staffers around the world contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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