LVIV, Ukraine –
While Finnish leaders dealt him a heavy blow by announcing their support for NATO membership, Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his determination to maintain Moscow’s rule over eastern Ukraine as Russian forces pound the area.
Putin, in a message released Thursday by the Kremlin, offered his support to Leonid Pasechnik, head of the pro-Russian separatists in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republicpart of the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.
“I am sure that through our joint efforts we will defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Luhansk republic, Putin said at the start of his 12th week of war against Ukraine.
The Russian leader’s message was supported by a torrent of Russian airstrikes and artillery barrages along the 300-mile-long eastern battlefront, including a steel mill where the last pocket of Ukrainian military resistance remains in the strategic southeastern port city of Mariupol. .
The fighting comes amid the dramatic announcement of the Finnish president and prime minister their support for NATO membershippaving the way for an expansion of the US-led military alliance that Putin has partially blamed for his decision to invade Ukraine.
Finland, a historically neutral country that shares an 830-mile land border with Russia, is expected to be joined by Sweden soon in its quest to join the 30-member security pact.
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security,” President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement Thursday. “As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay. “
The addition of the two Nordic states to NATO would underline how badly Putin miscalculated the world’s response to his foray into Ukraine, which it failed to achieve its initial military goalsit prompted Europe to start weaning off Russia’s most valuable exports – fossil fuels – and forced non-aligned states to take sides.
“This is monumental,” said Aglaya Snetkov, a Russia expert and lecturer in international politics at University College London. “This has overturned decades of foreign policy.
“Putin’s initial plan to draw a line in the sand between Russia and NATO and reverse the latter’s expansion has failed spectacularly,” he added. “This is exactly what Russia did not want: NATO expansion.”
The Kremlin responded by saying that Putin had already initiated a strengthening of Russian defenses along its western flank. But Snetkov said Moscow would likely struggle to organize a meaningful response if Finland and Sweden joined NATOgiven the vast deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine.
“He got bogged down in Ukraine, withdrew his troops from other borders,” Snetkov said. “Really, what can he do? If he doesn’t respond to weakness, which I think is likely, it shows Russia once again and that it is full of empty threats. “
More than a dozen Russian armored vehicles were destroyed crossing the Siversky Donets River near the village of Bilohorivka in Luhansk, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which posted images of charred tanks and the remains of two pontoon bridges on Facebook. . Photos cannot be independently verified.
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the village was the subject of a Russian attack over the weekend that hit a school that had been turned into a shelter, killing around 60 civilians.
On Thursday morning, the Ukrainian army said it had repelled nine Russian attacks in the past 24 hours in Luhansk and Donetsk, while admitting that Russian progress in the region has been “partially successful”.
Russian airstrikes continued to rain on the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, where the city’s last defenders they have been locked up for weeks. The dire situation prompted Kiev to offer the release of Russian POWs in exchange for the safe evacuation of wounded soldiers trapped inside the mill.
Negotiations were underway on Thursday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, but none of the options discussed so far were “ideal”.
The defenders, members of the Azov regiment, refused to surrender despite heavy shelling and the rapid depletion of sources of food, water and medicine.
Only a fraction of Mariupol’s 400,000 residents are believed to do so stay in the destroyed city, which Mayor Vadym Boychenko called reduced to a “medieval ghetto”. Many of the city’s displaced people fled about 120 miles northwest to the city of Zaporizhzhia, which was hit by Russian bullets and grenades, the Ukrainian military said Thursday.
Ukraine’s human rights chief said some 3,000 Mariupol residents were being held in prisons controlled by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Lyudmyla Denysova said on social media that some of the detainees were interrogated under coercion and endured terrible living conditions. Claims cannot be independently verified.
Three people were killed and 12 injured in overnight air strikes in the northern Chernihiv region, according to the Associated Press, citing local media.
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The UN’s chief human rights representative on Thursday blamed the Russian military and its delegates for most of the civilian deaths from the war.
“According to our information, although these incidents can be attributed to both sides in the conflict, most of these casualties appear to be attributable to the Russian military and affiliated armed groups,” said High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. in a special session of the Geneva Congress. – United Nations Council for Human Rights.
He said the “vast majority” of the casualties were caused by explosive weapons, including heavy artillery and missiles.
The council is expected to vote on a resolution reiterating its call for “an immediate cessation of military hostilities against Ukraine”. The UN General Assembly suspended Russia from the body last month allegations of atrocities by Russian forces in the suburbs of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, where bodies of civilians bearing signs of torture and summary execution were discovered.
Russia’s determination to continue the war against Ukraine has frightened other neighboring countries, including Finland, a country of 5.5 million people, which until now had refrained from joining NATO in order not to provoke Moscow. Putin has long viewed NATO’s expansion, particularly the addition of former Eastern Bloc nations such as Poland, Lithuania and Romania following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as a existential threat to Russia.
Attitude in Finland towards NATO changed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, which resulted in the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. Polls show that 76% of the population now support joining the defense pact, a dramatic turnaround since late 2017 during the country’s centennial, when only 19% were in favor of joining.
“The Finnish population looked to Ukraine and said: ‘Russia could do this to Finland,’” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a security expert at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs. “At the same time, there is a realization that Russia is talking about using nuclear weapons in a way that Finland cannot cope with. Finland has no nuclear weapons deterrents. The only way to do this is to become a NATO [members]. “
Germany also changed its security calculations, promising a $ 100 billion increase in military spending to meet NATO-set goals that it failed to achieve for years.
But European officials will need more than just US support to bring Moscow to the heel, which is why European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was in Tokyo on Thursday to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Her visit was followed on Wednesday by Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
Von der Leyen and Kishida turned to China, which they did he firmly refused to criticize Russia on Ukraine – to do more to exert influence on the Kremlin to end the war.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not just about Europe, it shakes the heart of the international order, including Asia. This is not to be tolerated, “said Kishida, whose government has joined Western sanctions against Russia.
King reported from Lviv and Pierson from Singapore.