Latest political developments
Finland, Sweden advance further in NATO membership process.
NATO, U.S. confident Turkey’s concerns about their bids can be overcome.
Updates from the ground on Day 81 of the war
Russia pummeled positions in Eastern Ukraine on Sunday, its defence ministry said, as it sought to encircle Ukrainian forces in the battle for the Donbas region and fend off a counter-offensive around the strategic Russian-controlled city of Izyum.
Moscow said on Sunday it had struck Ukrainian positions in the east with missiles, targeting command centres and arsenals as its forces seek to surround Ukrainian units between Izyum and Donetsk. Reuters was not able to independently confirm the reports.
Izyum straddles the Donets river, about 120 kilometres from Kharkiv on the main highway heading southeast.
If Ukraine can sustain pressure on Izyum and Russian supply lines, that will make it harder for Moscow to encircle battle-hardened Ukrainian troops on the eastern front in Donbas — a mostly Russian-speaking region that’s partly held by Moscow-backed separatists.
“The hottest spot remains the Izyum direction,” Ukrainian regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in comments aired on social media.
“Our armed forces have switched to a counteroffensive there. The enemy is retreating on some fronts.”
Since mid-April, Russian forces have focused much of their firepower on trying to capture two eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk that make up Donbas after failing to take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
An assessment by British military intelligence said Russia had lost about one-third of the ground combat force deployed in February. Its Donbas offensive had fallen “significantly behind schedule” and was unlikely to make rapid advances during the coming 30 days, the assessment said.
In Ruska Lozova, a village set in sweeping fields between Kharkiv and Ukraine’s border with Russia, Ukrainian commanders said they believed Moscow was redeploying troops to defend Izyum while keeping their opponents pinned down with artillery fire.
“The Russian attack on Kharkiv has been destroyed and they understand this,” said Ihor Obolensky, who commands the National Guard and volunteer force that captured Ruska Lozova eight days ago. “They need to try for a new victory and want to hold Izyum.”
But Ukraine’s military also acknowledged setbacks in an update on Sunday morning. “Despite losses, Russian forces continue to advance in the Lyman, Sievierodonetsk, Avdiivka and Kurakhiv areas in the broader Donbas region,” the update said.
There was also no let-up on Sunday in Russia’s bombardment of the steel works in the southern Donetsk city of Mariupol, where a few hundred Ukrainian fighters are holding out weeks after the city fell into Russian hands, the Ukrainian military said.
Brightly burning munitions were shown cascading down on the steel works in a video posted by a pro-Russian separatist commander.
A large convoy carrying refugees from the ruins of Mariupol arrived in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia after nightfall on Saturday after waiting days for Russian troops to allow them to leave.
Iryna Petrenko, a 63-year-old in the convoy, said she had stayed initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
In western Ukraine near Poland, missiles destroyed military infrastructure overnight on Saturday and were fired at the Lviv region from the Black Sea, Ukrainian officials said.
Nine civilians were wounded in Russian shelling of Severodonetsk hospital yesterday evening, Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said on the Telegram messaging application.
Another 10 civilians were wounded in the southern region of Mykolaiv in the last 24 hours, the regional council said, without providing details. The reports could not be independently verified.
Ukraine has scored a series of successes since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, forcing Russia’s commanders to abandon an advance on the capital Kyiv before making rapid gains to drive them from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city.
Moscow’s invasion, which it calls a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists, has jolted European security. Kyiv and its Western allies say the fascism assertion is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.
Finland, Sweden inch closer to NATO membership
At a meeting in Germany, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) said Ukraine could win the war, calling for more military support and fast-track approval of expected bids by Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Meanwhile, the president of Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre border with Russia, confirmed on Sunday that his country would apply to join NATO, a major policy shift prompted by Russia’s invasion. Sweden’s ruling party followed suit.
Finland and Sweden have both said they see NATO membership as a way of bolstering their security, though Russia has warned that it would be a mistake for Helsinki to abandon its neutrality.
Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats came out in favour of the country joining NATO on Sunday, paving the way for an application and abandoning decades of military non-alignment.
Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken both expressed confidence that concerns from Turkey about the bids by the Baltic states could be overcome, with Stoltenberg indicating that an accelerated accession process and interim security arrangements would be possible.