KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Finnish leaders voted on Thursday in favor of applying for NATO membership, and Sweden could do the same within days, in a historic realignment on the continent 2.5 months after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. a shiver of fear runs through the neighbors of Moscow.
The Kremlin reacted by warning that it would be forced to take “military-technical” measures of retaliation.
On the ground, meanwhile, Russian forces pounded areas of central, northern and eastern Ukraine, including the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, as part of its offensive to take the region industrial Donbass, while Ukraine took over some towns and villages in the northeast.
The first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier since the start of the conflict is due to open on Friday in kyiv. A 21-year-old captured member of a tank unit is accused of shooting down a civilian on a bicycle during the first week of the war.
Finland’s president and prime minister have announced that the Nordic country should immediately seek membership in NATO, the military defense pact founded in part to counter the Soviet Union.
“It was you (Russia) who caused this. Look in the mirror,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said this week.
While the country’s parliament has yet to weigh in, the announcement means Finland is almost certain to apply – and be admitted – although the process could take months. Similarly, Sweden plans to place itself under the protection of NATO.
This would represent a major change in the European security landscape: Sweden avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland adopted neutrality after its defeat by the Soviets in World War II.
Public opinion in both countries shifted dramatically in favor of NATO membership after the invasion, sparking fears in countries along Russia’s flank that they could be next. .
Such an expansion of the alliance would leave Russia surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic and would be a bitter setback for Putin, who had hoped to divide and roll back NATO in Europe, but instead sees the otherwise happen.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden with open arms.
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Moscow “will be forced to take retaliatory measures of military-technical and other characteristics in order to counter emerging threats to its national security.”
NATO’s flow of arms and other military support to Ukraine has already been essential to kyiv’s surprising success in fighting the invasion, and the Kremlin again warned in chilling terms on Thursday that the assistance could lead to a direct conflict between NATO and Russia.
“There is always a risk that such a conflict will turn into a full-scale nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for everyone,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council.
While Russia’s advance into Donbass was slow, its forces gained ground and took villages.
Four civilians were killed on Thursday in three localities in the Donetsk region, which is part of Donbass, the regional governor reported.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense says Russia’s focus on Donbas has left its remaining troops around the northeastern city of Kharkiv vulnerable to counterattack by Ukrainian forces, which have recaptured several towns and villages around the city.
Russian strikes on Thursday killed at least two civilians on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, local authorities said.
The attacks also damaged a building housing a humanitarian aid unit, municipal offices and hospital facilities, Vyacheslav Zadorenko, the mayor of the suburban town of Derhachi, wrote in a Telegram article.
None of the sites “had anything to do with military infrastructure,” Zadorenko said.
Fighting across the east has driven several thousand Ukrainians from their homes.
“It’s terrible there now. We were leaving under missiles,” said Tatiana Kravstova, who left the town of Siversk with her 8-year-old son Artyom on a bus heading for the central city of Dnipro. “I don’t know where they were aiming, but they were pointing at civilians.”
Ukraine also said Russian forces fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian troops around Zaporizhzhia, which has been a haven for civilians fleeing Mariupol, and attacked in the Chernihiv and Sumy to the north.
Nightly airstrikes near Chernihiv in northern Ukraine killed at least three people, the Ukrainian military said. He said Russian troops fired rockets at a school and student dormitory in Novhorod-Siversky and other buildings, including private homes, were also damaged.
In his evening address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the attacks.
“Of course, the Russian state is in such a state that any education only gets in the way. But what can be achieved by destroying Ukrainian schools? All Russian commanders who give such orders are simply sick and incurable.
Noting that Thursday is International Nurses Day, Zelenskyy said the Russian military had damaged 570 medical facilities since the invasion began on February 24 and completely destroyed 101 hospitals.
Twelve Russian missiles hit an oil refinery and other infrastructure in Ukraine’s industrial hub of Kremenchuk on Thursday, the region’s acting governor, Dmytro Lunin, wrote in a Telegram post. In early April, he said, the refinery, which was the last fully functional one in Ukraine at the time, was taken out of service by an attack.
In the southern port of Mariupol, which was largely reduced to smoldering rubble with little food, water or medicine, or what the mayor called a “medieval ghetto”, Ukrainian fighters continued to hold head to the Azovstal steelworks, the last bastion of resistance in the city.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said negotiations were underway with Russia to secure the release of 38 seriously injured Ukrainian defenders from the factory. She said Ukraine hoped to exchange them for 38 “important” Russian POWs.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Jari Tanner in Helsinki and other AP staff around the world contributed.
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