KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces have launched airstrikes on the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the besieged city of Mariupol and accelerated their advance on cities in the east of the country, the Ukrainian army announced on Thursday.
As the war, which has stalled, has caused more death and upheaval, its shattering repercussions have spread, with Finland announcing its intention to end decades of neutrality and apply for NATO membership.
Finland’s president and prime minister said on Thursday that the Nordic country should apply “without delay” to join the Western alliance, founded in part to counter the Soviet Union. The announcement means Finland is virtually certain to seek to join the military alliance, although there are still a few steps before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden should decide to join NATO in a few days.
NATO’s support for Ukraine – particularly by providing weapons – has been essential to Kyiv’s surprising success in thwarting the Russian invasion, which began on February 24. Russian troops fell and thwarted their aim to invade the capital.
Yet the war has unleashed staggering destruction, killed thousands and forced millions from their homes., while shattering Europe’s post-Cold War sense of stability. This prompted NATO to send troops and weapons to fortify the alliance’s eastern border and led Sweden and Finland to reconsider their longstanding opposition to joining the transatlantic alliance, whose members are committed to mutual defense.
In Mariupol, which saw some of the worst destruction of the warUkraine offered to release Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe evacuation of seriously injured fighters trapped inside the Azovstal steelworks, the last redoubt of Ukrainian forces in the ruined city.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said negotiations were underway to release the injured. She said there were different options, but “none of them are ideal”.
Russian forces took control of the rest of the city, besieging it for weeks, with residents lacking food, water and medicine. Thousands of people have fled, saying there is almost nothing left of the port city, but an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol said Russian forces have now blocked all escape routes.
Petro Andriushchenko said there were few apartment buildings suitable for living and some remaining residents were cooperating with Russian occupation forces in exchange for food, although he said on Thursday troops had taken over the water supply of two neighborhoods as a test.
“The occupiers have turned Mariupol into a medieval ghetto,” Mayor Vadym Boychenko said in comments posted by City Hall, as he called for a complete evacuation of the city. Officials have said in recent weeks that around 100,000 residents could still be trapped in Mariupol, which had more than 400,000 residents before the war.
Russian and Ukrainian authorities have periodically agreed to ceasefires to evacuate residents and have repeatedly blamed each other when those efforts failed. Andriushchenko’s claims could not be independently confirmed.
Following their failure to take kyiv, Russian forces withdrew and regrouped – and focused on Ukraine’s Donbass, an eastern industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists fought Ukrainian troops for years. While Russia’s advance there has also been slow, the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff noted on Thursday that Moscow had achieved “partial success”.
He said Ukrainian forces repelled nine attacks by Russian forces and destroyed several drones and military vehicles. The information could not be independently verified.
Evacuees from beleaguered eastern towns wiped their tears as they carried their children and belongings in buses and vans to flee.
“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.”
The Ukrainian military also said Russian forces fired artillery at Ukrainian units north of the city of Kharkiv – a key northeast city in the Donbas offensive; fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian troops heading towards Zaporizhzhia, which had been a haven for civilians fleeing Mariupol; and attacked in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions to the north.
Nightly airstrikes in the Chernihiv region left three dead and 12 injured, according to local media citing emergency services. The regional governor said the strikes on the town of Novhorod-Siverskyi damaged a boarding school, a dormitory and an administrative building.
President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed Russia’s determination to ensure that Donbass territory held by Moscow-backed separatists never returns to Ukraine in a congratulatory message Thursday to the leader of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic.
On the eve of its invasion, Russia recognized the separatists’ claim of independence in Lugansk as well as in the other Donbass region of Donetsk. Moscow sought to justify its offensive by claiming, without evidence, that Ukraine was planning to attack areas held by separatists and that it was intervening to protect the inhabitants of these regions.
“I am sure that through our joint efforts we will defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Lugansk Republic, Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin.
Elsewhere, kyiv prepares for its first war crimes trial of a captured Russian soldier. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said his office had charged the Russian sergeant. Vadin Shyshimarin, 21, in the murder of a 62-year-old unarmed civilian who was shot while riding a bicycle in February, four days after the war began.
Attorney General Iryna Venediktova’s office said it has investigated more than 10,700 allegations of war crimes committed by Russian forces and identified more than 600 suspects.
Volodymyr Yavorskyy of the Center for Civil Liberties said the Ukrainian human rights group will closely follow Shyshimarin’s trial to see if it is fair – noting the difficulty of exceeding wartime standards.
Economically, Ukraine has shut down a pipeline that carries Russian gas through Ukraine to homes and industries in Western Europe, disrupting the flow west. of one of Moscow’s most lucrative exports.
The immediate effect will likely be limited, in part because Russia can divert the gas to another pipeline and because Europe relies on a variety of suppliers. Still, the cut underscored the wider risk to the war gas supply.
In the southern region of Kherson, the site of the first major Ukrainian city to fall in the war, a Moscow-appointed leader said local officials wanted Putin to annex the area. Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the regional administration appointed by Moscow, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti: “The city of Kherson is Russia.”
It was something that at least one resident disputed. “All residents of Kherson are waiting for our troops to arrive as soon as possible,” said a teacher who gave only her first name, Olga, for fear of reprisals. “Nobody wants to live in Russia or join Russia.”
A Black Sea port of about 300,000, Kherson is seen as a gateway to broader Russian control over southern Ukraine. The development has raised the possibility that the Kremlin is looking to sever another piece of Ukraine as it tries to salvage an invasion gone wrong.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv and PA staff from around the world contributed.
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