Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Finland’s leaders on Thursday voiced their support for applying to join NATO, and Sweden could do the same within days, bringing back a historic alliance for the continent two and a half months after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. A tremor of fear in Moscow’s neighbors.
The Kremlin responded by warning that it would have to take “military-technical” retaliatory steps.
Meanwhile, Russian forces on the ground bombarded areas in central, northern and eastern Ukraine, including the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, as part of their offensive to capture the Donbass industrial zone, while Ukraine recaptured some towns and villages in the northeast.
The first trial of a Russian soldier for war crimes since the conflict began on Friday is set to begin in Kyiv. A 21-year-old captive member of a tank unit was accused of shooting a civilian on a motorcycle to death during the first week of the war.
Finland’s president and prime minister announced that the Scandinavian country should apply immediately For membership in NATO, the Military Defense Pact was established in part to counter the Soviet Union.
“You (Russia) caused this. Look in the mirror,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said this week.
While the country’s parliament has yet to factor in, the announcement means Finland will almost certainly submit an application – and be accepted – although the process could take months to complete. Sweden, likewise, is considering placing itself under NATO protection.
It could represent a major change in Europe’s security landscape: Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland has 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, raising fears in countries along the Russian flank that they might 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 stinging setback for Putin, who had hoped to split NATO and defeat it in Europe but sees the opposite happening instead.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden with open arms.
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Moscow “will have to take retaliatory steps with military-technical and other characteristics in order to confront emerging threats to its national security.”
NATO’s diversion of arms and other military support to Ukraine was already crucial to Kyiv’s surprising success in thwarting the invasion, and the Kremlin warned again in harrowing terms Thursday that the aid could lead to direct conflict between NATO and Russia.
“There is always a risk that such a conflict will turn into an all-out nuclear war, a scenario that would be disastrous for everyone,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council.
While the progress of Russia in the Donbass was slow, its forces gained some territory and captured some villages.
The region’s governor reported that four civilians were killed Thursday in three communities in the Donetsk region, which is part of Donbass.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Russia’s focus on the Donbass River has left the remaining forces around the northeastern city of Kharkiv vulnerable to a counterattack from Ukrainian forces, who have retaken several towns and villages around the city.
On Thursday, Russian strikes killed at least two civilians on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, local authorities said.
Vyacheslav Zadorenko, the mayor of the town of Derhachy, wrote in a Telegram post that the attacks also damaged a building housing a humanitarian aid unit, municipal offices and hospital facilities.
None of the sites “had anything to do with military infrastructure,” Zadorenko said.
Fighting across the east drove several thousand Ukrainians from their homes.
“It’s awful there now. We were leaving under the missiles,” said Tatiana Kravstova, who left the town of Seversk with her 8-year-old son Artyom on a bus to the central city of Dnipro. “I don’t know where they were shooting, but they were pointing to civilians.
Ukraine also said that Russian forces fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian forces around Zaporizhia, which had been a refuge for civilians fleeing Mariupol, and attacked in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions to the north.
The Ukrainian military said overnight air strikes near Chernihiv in northern Ukraine killed at least three people. It said Russian forces had fired missiles at a school and student dormitories in Novhorod-Seversky and that some 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 no education is hindered but that. But what can be achieved by destroying Ukrainian schools? All Russian leaders who issue such orders are simply sick and incurable.”
Noting that Thursday is International Nurses Day, Zelensky said the Russian army has destroyed 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 at the Kremenchug industrial center in central Ukraine on Thursday, the region’s acting governor Dmytro Lunin wrote in a Telegram post. He said the refinery, which was the last fully operational refinery in Ukraine at the time, was halted in early April due to an attack.
In the southern port of Mariupol, largely reduced to smoking ruins with little food, water, or medicine, or what the mayor called a “medieval ghetto,” Ukrainian fighters continued to hold out at the Azovstal steel mill, the last steel bastion. resistance in the city.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshuk said negotiations were underway with Russia to win the release of 38 seriously wounded Ukrainian defenders from the factory. She said Ukraine hoped to replace them with 38 “important” Russian prisoners of war.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Jari Tanner in Helsinki, and other AP employees around the world contributed.
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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