Finland wants to reassure Russia about NATO bid
KYIV, Ukraine (AFP) – Finland tried to allay Moscow’s fears about its attempt to join NATO on Saturday, as fierce fighting raged east of Ukraine, slowing hopes of a Russian advance.
Wives and parents of Ukrainian fighters trapped inside a besieged steel plant in the country’s south have meanwhile made desperate appeals to China to help secure their release.
And the G7 vowed to further twist the screw with new sanctions on the Kremlin, pledging that it would never recognize the limits it was attempting to pull again through destructive force.
One of Europe’s fiercest conflicts since World War II has seen more than six million people run for their lives, and an estimated $90 billion in damage to civilian infrastructure, according to Kyiv.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to move quickly to implement a ceasefire in their first talks since the conflict began on February 24.
But a senior Ukrainian general predicted a turning point in the coming months and said the fighting could be over by the end of the year.
Away from the fight, in Turin, Italy, a wave of popular support has made Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra a favorite of bookmakers for victory at the world’s biggest live concert – the Eurovision Song Contest.
But here also the war has cast a shadow.
“We have a band member who joined the regional defense of Kyiv on the third day of the war,” said lead vocalist Ole Psyuk.
“We are very concerned about him, and we hope to see him safe once he is back.”
Both Finland and Sweden are set to join NATO, decades of military non-alignment, as a defense against further fears from Russia.
Moscow has warned Finland, with which it shares a 1,300-kilometre (800 mi) border, that it will take “reciprocal steps”.
Finland’s grid operator said Russia had pulled the plug on power supplies overnight after President Saulie Niinisto had a “straight and direct” phone conversation with Vladimir Putin.
“Avoiding stress was considered important,” Ninisto’s office said. “The phone call was initiated by Finland.”
The Kremlin said, however, that Putin told them that Finland joining NATO would be a “mistake”, emphasizing that Russia “poses no threat to Finland’s security”.
Finland’s bid to join NATO is expected to be announced later this week.
Finland and Sweden, both of which have large Kurdish populations, must first persuade NATO member Turkey on the sidelines of an informal gathering of coalition foreign ministers in Berlin.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday he opposed the bids and accused both countries of harboring “terrorist organisations”.
Ankara has accused Stockholm in particular of harboring members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization in the UK, the European Union and the United States.
It is also angered by Sweden’s recognition of the mass murders of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917, and claims of human rights abuses as a genocide.
The Nordic countries say they were not aware of Turkey’s misunderstandings and analysts told AFP that Erdogan could also play hardball in an attempt to reverse America’s refusal to sell the fighter jets.
Ukraine, the government and the military claimed it was blocking a Russian offensive in the strategic eastern Donbass region, halting Moscow’s attempt to capture the south and east.
Russia, which sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, has turned its attention to eastern Ukraine since late March after failing to capture the capital Kyiv.
Serhi Gaidai, governor of the Eastern Lugansk region, said Ukrainian forces had prevented Russian attempts to cross the river and encircle the city of Severodnetsk.
Defense and military intelligence officials in both London and Washington said Russian forces suffered heavy losses as they attempted to cross the river and failed to make significant progress.
Ukraine’s General Staff said troops had managed to drive Russian troops out of Kharkiv, another Ukrainian city.
“The main enemy efforts are focused on ensuring the withdrawal of its units from the city of Kharkiv,” a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Kharkiv’s regional governor Ole Sinegubov said in a video on Telegram that Ukrainian forces were retaliated in the direction of the northeastern city of Izium.
Major General Kyrlo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, said the coming months would be decisive for the war.
“The breaking point will be in the second half of August,” he told Britain’s Sky News television.
“Most active combat action will be over by the end of this year.”
– China’s appeal –
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell in the US Senate and a delegation of US senators in Kyiv on Saturday.
On Friday, Zelensky said his troops would fight to recapture all occupied territories, and those under siege, including the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.
There, the city’s last defenders hide in a war of underground tunnels and bunkers in the vast Azovstal steelworks under heavy bombardment.
The United Nations and the Red Cross earlier this month helped women, children and the elderly extract whey from a plant that was kept there.
But local officials said about 600 fighters from Ukraine’s Azov regiment were wounded and needed to be brought out for medical treatment.
In Kyiv, the five wives and fathers of fighters trapped at the plant appealed directly to Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down.
“China has a huge influence on Russia and personally on Putin. We ask him to intervene,” said one person, Stavr Vychniak.