Small wins buoy Ukraine; West says Russians are losing momentum

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Nearly three months after Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine, its military faces a bogged down war, the prospect of a larger NATO and an adversary backed by victories on and off the battlefield.

Senior NATO diplomats met in Berlin with the leader of the alliance, who declared that the war “does not happen as Moscow had planned.”

“Ukraine can win this war,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, adding that the alliance should continue to offer military support to kyiv. He spoke via video link at the meeting as he recovers from a COVID-19 infection.

On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden have taken steps to bring them closer to NATO membership despite Russian objections. Finland announced on Sunday that it was seeking to join NATO, claiming that the invasion had changed the security landscape in Europe. Hours later, Sweden’s ruling party endorsed the country’s own bid for membership, which could lead to a bid within days.

If the two non-aligned Nordic nations were part of the alliance, it would be an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin., who called NATO’s post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe a threat to Russia. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.

While Moscow has lost ground on the diplomatic front, Russian forces have also failed to make territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine said it had repelled Russian offensives in the east, and Western military officials said the campaign launched by Moscow after its forces failed to seize the capital, Kyiv, had slowed down at a snail’s pace.

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

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed that his country will 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.

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They will return to a country that is still struggling for its survival.

Russian and Ukrainian fighters are engaged in a fierce battle for the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, the Donbass. The most experienced and best-equipped Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists there for eight years.

Even with its setbacks, Russia continues to inflict death and destruction across Ukraine. Over the weekend, his forces struck a chemical plant and 11 high-rise buildings in Siverodonetsk, Donbass, the regional governor said. Governor Serhii Haidaii said two people were killed in the shelling and warned residents still in the city to stay in underground shelters.

Russian missiles destroyed “military infrastructure” in Yavoriv district in western Ukraine near the border with Poland, the governor of the Lviv region said. Lviv is a major gateway for Western-supplied weapons that Ukraine acquired during the war.

The Ukrainian army said it had repelled a new Russian offensive in the Donetsk region of Donbass. Russian troops also tried to advance near the eastern town of Izyum, but Ukrainian forces stopped them, Kharkiv region governor Oleh Sinegubov reported.

And Ukraine blew up two railway bridges that had been seized by Russian forces in the eastern region of Lugansk, Ukraine’s Special Operations Command said on Sunday. He posted a video of exploding bridges on Facebook. The command also said it destroyed Russian lines of communication in the region to prevent Russia from bringing in more troops to attack the cities of Lisichansk and Severodonetsk, he added.

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.

Russia’s war performance reviews took place as Russian troops retreated from the vicinity of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which was a key military objective at the start of the war and was bombarded for decades. weeks. The regional governor said there had been no shelling in the city for several days, although Russia continued to strike the wider Kharkiv region.

A Ukrainian battalion that had fought in the region reached the border with Russia on Sunday and made a victorious video there addressed to Zelenskyy.

In the video posted on Facebook by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, a dozen fighters stood around a blue and yellow pole, in the colors of Ukraine.

One of them explained that the unit went “to the demarcation line with the Russian Federation, the occupying country. Mr President, we have succeeded. We are here.”

Other fighters made victory signs and raised their fists.

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. 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; untreated wounds sometimes resulted in sepsis.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said regional prosecutors had launched a criminal investigation into Moscow’s alleged use of restricted incendiary bombs at the steel plant. International law permits certain uses of incendiary munitions but prohibits their use to directly target enemy personnel or civilians.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the 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 they may be next, including Finland, which shares both a 1,340-kilometre (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, 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 paid a surprise visit to kyiv on Saturday in a show of support.

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


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