Russia attacks eastern Ukraine, Finland moves toward NATO membership

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KYIV, Ukraine — Russia struck areas in eastern Ukraine Thursday, including the last pocket of resistance in besieged Mariupol, as the war drew closer to Finland. end decades of neutrality and seeking NATO membership.

The conflict on the ground even as the world-shaking repercussions of the invasion spread, with Ukraine’s military recapturing some towns and villages in the country’s northeast, but acknowledging that Russian forces have had “partial success” further south in the industrial heartland. eastern Donbass.

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, though there are several steps to the process and it could take months to complete. neighboring sweden it is expected to decide in a few days about joining NATO, whose members are committed to mutual defense.

Russia said Finland’s move would not help stability and security in Europe. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s response will depend on specific steps NATO takes to move its infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders. Finland and Russia share a land border of 1,340 kilometers (830 mi).

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. Russian troops below and he frustrated his objective of invading the capital.

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

Following their failure to take kyiv, Russian forces fell back 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, the second largest city in Ukraine, has suffered heavy Russian bombardment during the war when Russia tried to surround 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 into 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 administrative building.

In the southern port city of Mariupol, which has seen some of the worst destruction of the warUkraine has offered to free Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe evacuation of seriously wounded fighters trapped inside the Azovstal steelworks, the last holdout of Ukrainian 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.

President Vladimir 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.

“I am sure that through our joint efforts we will defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Luhansk republic, Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin.

Elsewhere, Kyiv prepared for his first war crimes trial of a captured Russian soldier. Ukraine’s top prosecutor said her office charged the Russian Sgt. Vadin Shyshimarin, 21, in the murder of a 62-year-old unarmed civilian who was shot while riding a bicycle in February, four days into the war.

In the southern region of Kherson, the site of the first important ukrainian city to fall in the war, a Moscow-appointed leader said officials want Putin to annex the area. Kirill Stremousov said: “The city of Kherson is Russia.”

That was something that at least one resident questioned. “All the people of Kherson are waiting for our troops to arrive as soon as possible,” said a teacher who gave only her first name, Olga, for fear of reprisals. “No one wants to live in Russia or join Russia.”

A Black Sea port of about 300,000, Kherson is seen as a gateway to broader Russian control over southern Ukraine.

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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