Soldiers of the Kraken Ukrainian special forces unit talk to a man at a destroyed bridge on the road near the village of Rus’ka Lozova, north of Kharkiv, on May 16, 2022 – Copyright AFP Anwar AMRO
David STOUT with Dmitry ZAKS in Lysychansk and Elias HUUHTANEN in Helsinki
President Vladimir Putin said on Monday Sweden and Finland joining NATO would be no threat to Russia but warned the Western alliance that moving troops or weapons into the Nordic neighbours would provoke a “response.”
With Moscow pressing its assault in eastern border regions of Ukraine nearly three months into its invasion, Helsinki and Stockholm are poised to give up decades of military non-alignment over fears they could be next.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson confirmed on Monday her country would apply to join NATO, a day after Finland — which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia — said the same.
Putin, whose war has sparked global outrage, killing thousands, said the move poses “no direct threat for us… but the expansion of military infrastructure to these territories will certainly provoke our response.”
The Russian leader’s more moderate reaction marked a contrast with comments earlier Monday from deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, who called the expansion a “grave mistake with far-reaching consequences”.
The move is not a done deal in any case, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday confirming his country’s intention to block the applications, accusing Finland and Sweden of harbouring terror groups, including outlawed Kurdish militants.
Sweden and Finland have failed to respond positively to Turkey’s 33 extradition requests over the past five years, justice ministry sources told the official Anadolu news agency on Monday.
Any membership bid must be unanimously approved by NATO’s 30 nations.
But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced confidence Sunday that Sweden and Finland would join NATO despite Turkey’s opposition.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will meet Blinken in Washington on Wednesday, where Ankara’s objections are expected to figure high on the agenda.
– Kharkiv battles –
Despite the resources of its giant neighbour, Ukraine has managed to repel Russian forces for longer than many expected, fortified by weapons and cash from Kyiv’s Western allies.
Ukraine’s defence ministry announced its troops had regained control of territory on the Russian border near the country’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, which has been under constant attack.
Since failing to take the capital Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Moscow is focusing on Donbas, a region near the Russian border that is home to pro-Russian separatists.
Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich told local television Sunday that Russian troops were being redeployed to take Severodonetsk, the easternmost city still held by Ukraine.
Its occupation would grant the Kremlin de facto control of Lugansk, one of two regions — along with Donetsk — that comprise Donbas.
But Russia’s attempt to encircle the city of 100,000 has been repelled with heavy equipment losses, while Russian-occupied railway bridges were blown up, Ukrainian officials said.
Russia continued strikes on Lugansk, killing two people and wounding nine during shelling of a Severodonetsk hospital, the Ukrainian presidency said Monday.
A further 10 people were killed by Russian strikes on Severodonetsk, according to the local governor.
Police in neighbouring Donetsk said six civilians were killed and 12 wounded in Russian shelling over the past 24 hours.
Six million refugees have fled Ukraine since the war began, and another eight million have been internally displaced, according to UN agencies.
But some are trying to wait it out.
– ‘Time is running out’ –
In Lysychansk, on the other side of the river from Severodonetsk, a policeman tried in vain to evacuate Angelina Abakumova and her children.
“It is dangerous here now. Then it changes and it becomes dangerous over there. What is the point of going back and forth?” she told AFP, on her way back to her basement.
One of the war’s most symbolic battles has been the fight for Mariupol, the southern port that has largely fallen to Russian forces.
Russia said Monday it had reached a deal to evacuate wounded soldiers from the city’s Azovstal steel plant, where hundreds remain holed up in underground tunnels, although there was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
Meanwhile EU foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss a ban on Russian oil — proposed as part of an unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow but being blocked by Hungary over the economic cost.
“We are unhappy with the fact that the oil embargo is not there,” Ukraine’s top diplomat Dmytro Kuleba said afterwards.
“It’s clear who’s holding up the issue. But time is running out because every day Russia keeps making money and investing this money into the war.”
The war meanwhile is taking its toll on the continent’s growth. The European Commission sharply cut its eurozone forecast for 2022 to 2.7 percent, blaming skyrocketing energy prices.
Separately, French automaker Renault has handed over its Russian assets to Moscow, while US fast food giant McDonald’s announced it would be pulling out, citing the “humanitarian crisis caused by the war.”