Russia hits eastern Ukraine as Finland heads for NATO bid

KYIV – Russian forces have launched airstrikes on the last Ukrainian resistance zone in the besieged city of Mariupol and pushed further into towns in the east of the country, the Ukrainian army said Thursday.

As the war, which has become a stalemate, caused more deaths and commotion, the earth-shattering consequences spread, with Finland announcing plans to end decades of neutrality and seek NATO membership.

Finland’s president and prime minister said on Thursday that the Scandinavian country must “immediately” join the Western alliance, which was formed in part to counter the Soviet Union. The announcement means Finland will almost certainly seek to join the military alliance, although there are still a few steps to take before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden is expected to decide on joining NATO within a few days.

NATO’s support to Ukraine — notably through the supply of weapons — has been critical to Kiev’s surprising success in stopping the Russian invasion, which began on February 24. Many observers thought Moscow’s larger and better-armed army would be difficult to stop, but the Ukrainians’ stalled Russian forces fell and thwarted their aim to overrun the capital.

Yet the war has wreaked staggering destruction, displacing thousands of deaths and millions from their homes, while shattering Europe’s sense of stability after the Cold War. It has prompted NATO to send troops and weapons to strengthen the alliance’s eastern border and prompted Sweden and Finland to reconsider longstanding opposition to joining the transatlantic alliance, whose members are committed to mutual defence.

In Mariupol, which experienced some of the worst devastation of the war, Ukraine offered to release Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe evacuation of seriously wounded fighters trapped in the Azovstal steel mill, the last redoubt of Ukrainian troops in the devastated city. .

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said negotiations are underway to release the injured. She said there were several options, but “none of them are ideal.”

Russian forces have taken control of the rest of the city, which they have been besieging for weeks as residents ran out of food, water and medicine. Many thousands have fled, saying the port city is almost gone, but an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol said Russian forces have now blocked all evacuation routes.

Petro Andrushchenko said there are few apartment buildings suitable for living in, and some remaining residents are collaborating with occupying Russian forces in exchange for food, though he did say on Thursday that the troops have resumed water supplies to two neighborhoods as a test. .

“The occupiers turned Mariupol into a medieval ghetto,” Mayor Vadym Boychenko said in comments published by City Hall when he called for a complete evacuation of the city. Officials said in recent weeks that about 100,000 residents may still be trapped in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000.

The Russian and Ukrainian authorities have periodically agreed on ceasefires to evacuate residents, and repeatedly blamed each other when those efforts failed. Andrushchenko’s allegations could not be independently confirmed.

In the wake of their failure to take Kiev, Russian forces withdrew and regrouped — shifting their focus to Ukraine’s Donbas, an eastern industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for years. While Russia’s advance there has also been slow, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces noted on Thursday that Moscow has achieved “partial success”.

It said Ukrainian forces repulsed nine attacks by Russian troops and destroyed several drones and military vehicles. The information could not be independently verified.

Evacuees from cities across the troubled East wiped their tears as they carried their children and belongings on buses and vans to flee.

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

The Ukrainian army also said Russian forces had fired artillery at Ukrainian units north of the city of Kharkov – a northeastern city that was key to the offensive in the Donbas; fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian troops in the direction of Zaporizhzhya, which has been a refuge for civilians fleeing Mariupol; and attacked in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions to the north.

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

President Vladimir Putin confirmed Russia’s determination to ensure that territory in the Donbas held by Moscow-backed separatists never returns to Ukraine, in a congratulatory message 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 Luhansk and in the other Donbas region of Donetsk. Moscow tried to justify its offensive by claiming, without evidence, that Ukraine planned to attack areas controlled by separatists and intervened to protect the people in those regions.

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

Elsewhere, Kiev was preparing for its first trial of a captured Russian soldier. Ukraine’s Supreme Prosecutor said her office is Russia’s Sgt. Vadin Shyshimarin, 21, in the murder of an unarmed 62-year-old civilian who was shot while cycling in February, four days after the war.

Attorney General Iryna Venediktova’s office has said it has investigated more than 10,700 war crimes allegations by Russian troops and identified more than 600 suspects.

Volodymyr Yavorskyy of the Center for Civil Liberties said the Ukrainian human rights group will closely monitor Shyshimarin’s trial to see if it is fair – noting the difficulty of exceeding wartime standards.

Economically, Ukraine shut down a pipeline transporting Russian gas through Ukraine to homes and industries in Western Europe, disrupting the westward flow of one of Moscow’s most lucrative exports.

The direct effect is likely to be limited, partly because Russia can divert the gas to another pipeline and because Europe is dependent on different suppliers. Still, the lockdown underscored the wider gas supply risk of the war.

In the southern Kherson region, site of the first major Ukrainian city to fall in the war, a Moscow-appointed leader said officials there want Putin to annex the area. Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the regional administration appointed by Moscow, told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency: “The city of Kherson is Russia.”

That was something at least one resident disputed. “All the people in Kherson are waiting for our troops to come as soon as possible,” said a teacher who gave only her first name, Olga, for fear of retaliation. “Nobody wants to live in Russia or join Russia.”

Kherson, a port city of about 300,000 inhabitants on the Black Sea, is seen as a gateway to wider Russian control of southern Ukraine. The development raised the possibility that the Kremlin might try to tear down another piece of Ukraine while trying to salvage a failed invasion.

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