Kyiv: Moscow suffered another diplomatic setback Monday in its war with Ukraine, with Sweden joining Finland in deciding to seek NATO membership, while Ukraine’s president congratulated his soldiers who reportedly pushed back Russian forces near the border.
Russian forces pounded targets in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas and the death toll, already many thousands, continued to climb with the war set to enter its 12th week on Wednesday.
The eastern city of Sievierdonetsk came under heavy shelling, with at least 10 people killed, said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region. In the Donetsk region, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Facebook that nine civilians were killed in shelling there.
But Ukrainian troops also advanced as Russian forces pulled back from around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in recent days. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked his forces who reportedly pushed all the way to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region in a symbolic gain.
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Video showed a dozen Ukrainian soldiers gathered around a typical Ukrainian blue-and-yellow-striped border marker. One soldier had belts of bullets draped over a shoulder and carried a machine gun.
“I’m very grateful to you, on behalf of all Ukrainians, on my behalf and on behalf of my family,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. ”I’m very grateful to all the fighters like you.” Ukrainian border guards said they also stopped a Russian attempt to send sabotage and reconnaissance troops into the Sumy region, some 90 miles (146 kilometers) northwest of Kharkiv.
Russia has been plagued by setbacks in the war, most glaringly in its failure early on to take the capital of Kyiv. Much of the fighting has shifted to the Donbas but also has turned into a slog, with both sides fighting village-by-village.
Howitzers from the US and other countries have helped Kyiv hold off or gain ground against Russia, a senior US defence official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US military assessment, said Ukraine has pushed Russian forces to within a half-mile to 2.5 miles (1-4 kilometers) of Russia’s border but could not confirm if it was all the way to the frontier.
The official said Russian long-range strikes also appeared to target a Ukrainian military training center in Yavoriv, near the Polish border. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
A glimmer of hope emerged for wounded Ukrainian troops trapped in the remains of a giant steel plant, the last stronghold of resistance in the shattered port city of Mariupol. The Russian Defence Ministry announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the steelworks for treatment in a town held by pro-Moscow separatists.
There was no immediate confirmation from the Ukrainian side, and there was no word on whether the wounded would be considered prisoners of war. The international response to the Russian invasion picked up pace.
Sweden said it will seek NATO membership, following a similar decision from its neighbour Finland in a historic shift for the counties, which were nonaligned for generations.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the application period and urged her fellow citizens to brace themselves.
“Russia has said that that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO,” she said. “We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us.” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow “does not have a problem” with Sweden or Finland as they apply for NATO membership, but that “the expansion of military infrastructure onto this territory will of course give rise to our reaction in response.”
Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in what he said was an effort to check NATO’s expansion but has seen that strategy backfire, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the membership process for both could be quick.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO member, ratcheted up his objection to their joining. He accused the countries of failing to take a “clear” stance against Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara considers as terrorists, and of imposing military sanctions on Turkey.
All 30 current NATO members must agree to let the Nordic neighbours join. Europe is also working to choke off funding for the Kremlin’s war by reducing the billions of dollars it spends on imports of Russian energy. A proposed EU embargo faces opposition from some countries dependent on Russian imports, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bulgaria also has reservations.
“We will do our best in order to deblock the situation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. ”I cannot ensure that it is going to happen because positions are quite strong.” Also Monday, McDonald’s said it has started selling its business in Russia, ending a relationship that has lasted more than three decades. It cited the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, noting that staying in Russia “is no longer tenable, nor is it consistent with McDonald’s values.” The company was the first fast-food restaurant to open in the Soviet Union.