Finland’s prime minister said Friday she had taken a drug test and reiterated she had never taken narcotics, after a video of the 36-year-old partying sparked criticism.
The leaked video, which shows Sanna Marin dancing and partying with a group of friends and celebrities, has been shared widely on social media and local media.
Some have interpreted comments by the partygoers heard on the video as referring to narcotics, something heavily debated on social media and strongly denied by the prime minister.
“To clear up any suspicions, I have taken a drug test today,” she told reporters at her residence.
The results will be ready within a week and shared with the media as soon as they are ready, she said.
Marin has previously said she was “spending an evening with friends” and that the videos were “filmed in private premises”.
She admitted to having drunk alcohol. In addition to denying taking drugs, she said she did not witness any drug use by any attendees.
“Never in my life, not even in my youth, have I ever used any drugs,” she said Friday.
Marin’s behaviour in the video has nonetheless been criticised by some as inappropriate for a prime minister, while others have defended her right to enjoy a private event with friends.
Much of the criticism has centred around the fact that she was on duty as prime minister at the time.
Questions have arisen about whether she would have been in a position to make sound decisions in the event of a sudden crisis.
“My capacity to function was good. I didn’t expect to have any meetings”, Marin said.
Marin has the support of her party, with Antti Lindtman, head of the Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary group, telling media he “can’t see any major problem with dancing at a private event with friends”.
Marin — who was appointed in 2019 at the age of 34 — has previously been the target of criticism over parties at her official residence.
In December 2021, she came under sustained criticism after it was revealed she stayed out dancing until the early hours despite having been exposed to Covid-19.
A poll commissioned by Finnish TV channel MTV3 at the time found two-thirds of respondents thought her night out was a “serious mistake”.
The US Senate ratified the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO Wednesday, strongly backing the expansion of the transatlantic alliance in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Senate voted 95 to 1 in favor of the two Nordic countries’ accession, making the United States the 23rd of the 30 NATO countries to formally endorse it so far, after Italy approved it earlier Wednesday and France on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden hailed the Senate’s quick ratification process — the fastest since 1981.
“This historic vote sends an important signal of the sustained, bipartisan US commitment to NATO, and to ensuring our Alliance is prepared to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” Biden said in a statement.
The sole opponent was Republican Josh Hawley, who agreed that the United States should focus on protecting its homeland, but that Washington should concentrate on the challenge from China rather than Europe.
One senator, Republican Rand Paul, voted “present” rather than endorsing or opposing the motion.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday lifted his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO following crunch talks with the leaders of the two Nordic countries in Madrid.
Erdogan had stubbornly refused to green light the applications from the Nordic pair — lodged in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine — despite calls from his NATO allies to clear the path for them to enter.
Turkey could essentially veto Finland and Sweden from joining NATO since all members must agree to taking on new members.
But late on Tuesday, Erdogan’s office said it had agreed to back their drives to join, saying Ankara had “got what it wanted”.
“Turkey has made significant gains in the fight against terrorist organisations,” the office said ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid.
Ankara had accused Finland and especially Sweden of offering a safe haven to Kurdish militants who have been waging decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
The two Nordic countries also agreed to lift their embargoes on weapons deliveries to Turkey, which were imposed in response to Ankara’s 2019 military incursion into Syria.
Turkey signed a memorandum with Finland and Sweden on Tuesday supporting the invitation for the Nordic countries to become members of NATO, the Finnish presidency said.
NATO allies including Britain hailed the agreement.
‘Addresses Turkey’s concerns’
The move comes after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg mediated talks in Madrid between Erdogan and the leaders of Sweden and Finland.
“I’m pleased to announce that we now have an agreement that paves the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO,” he said.
The agreement “addresses Turkey’s concerns, including around arms exports, and the fight against terrorism,” he added.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on Tuesday hailed a “very good agreement” with Turkey but insisted Sweden had not made too many concessions to Erdogan.
“Taking the next step toward a full NATO membership is of course important for Sweden and Finland. But it’s also a very important step for NATO, because our countries will be security providers within NATO,” Andersson told AFP in an interview.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also welcomed the agreement.
“Sweden and Finland’s membership will make our brilliant alliance stronger and safer,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.
Sweden and Finland went into the NATO meeting open to the possibility that Turkey might only lift its objections after the summit concludes on Thursday.
US hails Turkey’s decision
A US official insisted on Tuesday that no concessions were given to Turkey to secure its green light.
“There was no request from the Turkish side for the Americans to make a particular concession,” a senior administration official told reporters.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official called Turkey’s decision a “powerful shot in the arm” for NATO unity.
Erdogan is expected to meet with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday on the sidelines of the gathering focused on responding to the Kremlin’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.
Erdogan and Biden have had a chilly relationship since Biden’s election because of US concerns about human rights under Erdogan.
Biden and Erdogan last met briefly in October on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Rome.
Fighter jet talks
Erdogan’s ability to maintain a close working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin while supporting Ukraine’s war effort has made him an important player in the conflict.
But those ties have also complicated his relations with Biden and NATO.
Washington has sanctioned Ankara for taking delivery of an advanced Russian missile defence system in 2019.
The purchase saw the United States drop Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter programme and impose trade restrictions on its military procurement agency.
But Washington has signalled it may be willing to move past the dispute.
Biden’s administration has dangled the possibility of supplying Ankara with older-generation F-16 jets that could replenish Turkey’s ageing air force fleet.
“The most important issue is the F-16 issue. It is still on the table,” Erdogan said of his upcoming talks with Biden.
Western allies vowed on Tuesday to boost NATO’s defences and to back Ukraine to the end as Moscow demanded Kyiv’s surrender.
As NATO leaders gathered in Madrid for a summit, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said Finland and Sweden would be formally invited to join NATO after Turkey lifted its block on their bids.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had stubbornly refused to approve their applications — lodged in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine — despite calls from his NATO allies to clear their path to membership.
But he abandoned his opposition following crunch talks on Tuesday with the leaders of the two Nordic countries in Madrid.
Erdogan’s office said late on Tuesday it had agreed to back their applications, saying Ankara had “got what it wanted”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the agreement between Finland, Sweden and Turkey, saying their membership would make the defence alliance “stronger and safer”.
Meanwhile, a senior US official said their membership would be a “powerful shot in the arm” for NATO unity.
NATO’s expansion came as Russian missiles continued to pound Ukrainian cities.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters arriving with President Joe Biden that Washington will announce “historic” new long-term military deployments in Europe.
The reinforcements will join NATO’s eastern flank, Russia’s nervous neighbours like the Baltic states, and reflect a long-term change “in the strategic reality” elsewhere in Europe.
Ahead of the summit, Stoltenberg said the allies would boost their high-readiness forces from 40,000 to 300,000.
Before travelling to Madrid, Biden and other leaders of the G7 powers — the world’s richest democracies — had held a summit in the German Alps.
Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz boasted afterwards that his country, a laggard in defence spending, would build “the largest conventional army within the NATO framework in Europe”.
Russia’s invasion, he said, had convinced Berlin “that we should spend more… an average of around 70 to 80 billion euros a year on defence over the next few years”.
NATO member Bulgaria announced it would expel 70 staff from Russia’s diplomatic mission accused of working against its interests.
At the G7 summit, the leaders agreed to impose new sanctions targeting Moscow’s defence industry, raising tariffs and banning gold imports from the country.
The US Treasury said the measures “strike at the heart of Russia’s ability to develop and deploy weapons and technology used for Vladimir Putin’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine,”
The new set of sanctions target Rostec, Russia’s largest defence conglomerate, as well as military units and officers implicated in human rights abuses in Ukraine, the Treasury said.
Putin’s Kremlin was not fazed by the sanctions, warning that Ukraine’s forces’ only option was to lay down their arms.
“The Ukrainian side can stop everything before the end of today,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“An order for the nationalist units to lay down their arms is necessary,” he said, adding Kyiv had to fulfil a list of Moscow’s demands.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for the United Nations to visit the site of a missile strike on a shopping mall in the central city of Kremenchuk, as he addressed the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
“I suggest the United Nations send either a special representative, or the secretary-general of the United Nations, or a plenipotentiary commission to the site of this terrorist act… so the UN could independently find out information and see that this indeed was a Russian missile strike,” Zelensky said of the attack on Monday that killed at least 18 people.
“Everything burned, really everything, like a spark to a touchpaper. I heard people screaming. It was horror,” witness Polina Puchintseva told AFP.
All that was left of the mall was charred debris, chunks of blackened walls and lettering from a smashed store front.
Russia claims its missile salvo was aimed at an arms depot — but none of the civilians who talked to AFP knew of any weapons store in the neighbourhood.
And, outside Russia, the latest carnage sparked only Ukrainian fury and western solidarity.
“Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime,” the G7 leaders said in a statement, condemning the “abominable attack”.
Zelensky declared on his social media channels: “Only total insane terrorists, who should have no place on Earth, can strike missiles at civilian objects.
“Russia must be recognised as a state sponsor of terrorism. The world can and therefore must stop Russian terror,” he added.
The G7 leaders did not go so far as to brand Putin a terrorist — but they vowed that Russia, already under tough sanctions, would face more economic pain.
“The G7 stands united in its support for Ukraine,” Scholz told reporters.
“We will continue to keep up and drive up the economic and political costs of this war for President Putin and his regime.”
Oil price cap?
The G7 had announced several new measures to put the squeeze on Putin, including a plan to work towards a price cap on Russian oil.
The group also agreed to impose an import ban on Russian gold. At the same time, the G7 powers heaped financial support on Ukraine, with aid now reaching $29.5 billion.
Meanwhile, with fierce artillery duels continuing in the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian officials said the central city of Dnipro and several other sites had been hit by more Russian missiles.
Pro-Moscow forces detained Igor Kolykhayev, the elected mayor of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.
Russian media said the “nationalist” was an opponent of Moscow’s supposed efforts to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, but Kolykhayev’s aides said he had been “kidnapped” by the city’s illegitimate occupiers.
The UN said 6.2 million people are now estimated to have been displaced within Ukraine, in addition to 5.26 million who have fled abroad.
“Ukraine now faces a brutality which we haven’t seen in Europe since the Second World War,” Stoltenberg said as leaders began to gather in Madrid.
Russia on Saturday stopped providing natural gas to neighbouring Finland, which has angered Moscow by applying for NATO membership after the Nordic country refused to pay supplier Gazprom in rubles.
Following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has asked clients from “unfriendly countries” — including EU member states — to pay for gas in rubles, a way to sidestep Western financial sanctions against its central bank.
Gazprom said in a statement Saturday that it had “completely stopped gas deliveries” as it had not received ruble payments from Finland’s state-owned energy company Gasum “by the end of the working day on May 20”.
Gazprom said it had supplied 1.49 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Finland in 2021, equal to about two-thirds of the country’s gas consumption.
However, natural gas accounts for around eight per cent of Finland’s energy.
Gasum said it would make up for the shortfall from other sources through the Balticconnector pipeline, which links Finland to Estonia, and assured that filling stations would run normally.
“Natural gas supplies to Finland under Gasum’s supply contract have been cut off,” the company said in a statement.
In April, Gazprom Export demanded that future payments in the supply contract be made in rubles instead of euros.
Gasum rejected the demand and announced on Tuesday it was taking the issue to arbitration.
Gazprom Export said it would defend its interests in court by any “means available”.
Gasum said it would be able to secure gas from other sources and that gas filling stations in the network area would continue “normal operation”.
Rift over NATO bid
In efforts to mitigate the risks of relying on Russian energy exports, the Finnish government on Friday also announced it had signed a 10-year lease agreement for an LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal ship with US-based Excelerate Energy.
On Sunday, Russia suspended electricity supplies to Finland overnight after its energy firm RAO Nordic claimed payment arrears, although the shortfall was quickly replaced.
Finland, along with neighbouring Sweden, this week broke its historical military non-alignment and applied for NATO membership, after public and political support for the western alliance soared following the invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has warned Finland that any NATO membership application would be “a grave mistake with far-reaching consequences”.
Both Finland and Sweden are seemingly on the fast track to joining the military alliance, with US President Joe Biden offering “full, total, complete backing” to their bids.
But all 30 existing NATO members must agree on any new entrants, and Turkey has condemned the Nordic neighbours’ alleged toleration of Kurdish militants and has so far voiced opposition to letting them in.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has said the Kremlin would respond to any NATO expansion by creating more military bases in western Russia.
Saturday’s halt to gas shipments follows Moscow cutting off Poland and Bulgaria last month in a move the European Union described as “blackmail”.
The supply contract will end on Saturday at 7:00 am (0400 GMT), Gasum said.
In April, Gazprom Export demanded that future payments in the supply contract be made in rubles instead of euros, but Gasum rejected the demand and announced on Tuesday it was taking the issue to arbitration.
Queried about the matter, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Friday referred reporters to Gazprom for “details” but said that “it is obvious that nobody is going to deliver anything for free.”
Natural gas accounts for about eight percent of Finland’s energy consumption, most of which comes from Russia.
In efforts to mitigate the risks of relying on Russian energy exports, the Finnish government earlier on Friday announced that the country had signed a 10-year lease agreement for an LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal ship with US-based Excelerate Energy.
“The LNG terminal will make it possible for us to break free from Russian gas,” Finance Minister Annika Saarikko told reporters.
On Sunday, Russia suspended electricity supplies to Finland overnight after its energy firm RAO Nordic claimed payment arrears, although the shortfall was quickly replaced.
Finland, along with neighbouring Sweden, this week broke its historical military non-alignment and applied for NATO membership, after public and political support for the alliance soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has repeatedly warned Finland that any NATO membership application would be “a grave mistake with far-reaching consequences.”
Finland and Sweden on Wednesday handed in their bids to join NATO, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine up-ended decades of military non-alignment.
The applications were warmly received by most allies. But Turkey raised objections, and ambassadors meeting in Brussels failed to reach consensus on starting formal membership negotiations.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had promised the process would be “swift and smooth”, but Turkey will have to be mollified before the ratification can take place.
“The applications you have made today are an historic step. Allies will now consider the next steps on your path to NATO,” Stoltenberg said, after receiving the bids from the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors.
The membership push could represent the most significant expansion of NATO in decades. It would double the US-led organisation’s presence along Russia’s borders, and President Vladimir Putin has warned it may trigger a response from Moscow.
But resistance raised by NATO member Turkey threatens to block them, with Ankara accusing the Nordic countries of acting as safe havens for opposition Kurdish groups.
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “We asked them to extradite 30 terrorists but they refused to do so.
“You will not send back the terrorists to us, and then ask our support for your NATO membership?”
Officials in Brussels confirmed that a meeting on Wednesday of the North Atlantic Council — ambassadors from the NATO member states — broke up without an agreement to pass to the next stage of membership talks.
“Allies will now consider the next steps on their path to NATO,” a NATO official said.
Earlier, Stoltenberg had said: “The security interests of all allies have to be taken into account and we are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions.
“All allies agree on the importance of NATO enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together and we all agree that this is an historic moment which we must seize.”
Helsinki, Stockholm and the other allied Western capitals remain optimistic they can overcome Turkey’s objections.
Several NATO allies, most notably Britain, have offered security assurances to Finland and Sweden during the application period before they are covered by alliance’s mutual defence pact.
“Over the past few days we have seen numerous statements by allies committing to Finland and Sweden’s security,” Stoltenberg said.
“NATO is already vigilant in the Baltic Sea region and NATO and allies forces will continue to adapt as necessary.”
Finland and Sweden on Wednesday submitted a joint application to join NATO as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forces a dramatic reappraisal of security in Europe.
The reversal of the Nordic countries’ longstanding policy of non-alignment came as the war nears its third month and Ukraine strives to evacuate the last of its soldiers holed up at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
Azovstal has become emblematic of the fierce Ukrainian resistance that has forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to reorient his military goals after a devastating campaign strewn with alleged war crimes.
In Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, the first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier since the invasion began was set to get under way at 1100 GMT.
“By this first trial, we are sending a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine shall not avoid responsibility,” prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg formally received the applications from the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors, calling them “an historic step”.
“All allies agree on the importance of NATO enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together and we all agree that this is an historic moment which we must seize,” he said.
The membership push could represent the most significant expansion of NATO in decades, doubling its border with Russia, and Putin has warned it may trigger a response from Moscow.
But the applications face resistance from NATO member Turkey, which has threatened to block them over accusations the Nordic neighbours act as safe havens for armed groups opposed to Ankara.
Western allies remain optimistic they can overcome Turkey’s objections and for now, several including Britain have offered security guarantees to Finland and Sweden to guard against any Russian aggression.
– Mediators for Azovstal –
On the ground, in the ruined port city of Mariupol, a unit of soldiers had been holding out in Azovstal’s underground maze of tunnels, but Moscow said Wednesday that 959 of the troops had surrendered this week.
Kyiv’s defence ministry said it would do “everything necessary” to rescue the undisclosed number of personnel still in the steelworks, but admitted there was no military option available.
“The evacuation mission continues, it is overseen by our military and intelligence,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address.
“The most influential international mediators are involved.”
Zelensky’s aide, Oleksiy Arestovich, said he would not comment further while the operation was ongoing. “Everything is too fragile there and one careless word can destroy everything,” he said.
Those who have left Azovstal were taken into Russian captivity, including 51 who were heavily wounded, the Russian defence ministry said.
The ministry, which published images showing soldiers on stretchers, said the injured were transported to a hospital in the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.
The defence ministry in Kyiv said it was hoping for an “exchange procedure… to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible”.
But their fate was unclear, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refusing to say whether they would be treated as criminals or prisoners of war.
Putin had “guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws”, Peskov said.
– ‘My war is not over’ –
Despite their last-ditch resistance in places such as Mariupol, and their successful defence of Kyiv, Ukrainian forces are retreating across swathes of the eastern front.
White smoke from burning fields marks the pace of Russia’s advance around the village of Sydorove, on the approaches to the militarily important city of Slovyansk and Ukraine’s eastern administrative centre in Kramatorsk.
Army volunteer Yaroslava, 51, sat on a slab of concrete jutting out from the remains of a school in Sydorove where her husband’s unit had set up camp before it was hit by a Russian strike.
She stared at a spot where rescuers and de-miners had spotted a motionless hand reaching out from the rubble.
“We had settled in London before the war but felt like we had no choice but to come back,” Yaroslava said.
“My two sons have just signed three-year contracts with the army. We will fight. We will still fight,” she said without moving her eyes.
“My war is not over.”
The war crimes trial in Kyiv, expected to be followed by several others, will test the Ukrainian justice system at a time when international bodies are also conducting their own investigations.
Vadim Shishimarin, 21, from Irkutsk in Siberia, is accused of shooting an unarmed 62-year-old man in Ukraine’s Sumy region on February 28 — four days into the invasion.
Shishimarin faces a possible life sentence. Prosecutors said he was commanding a unit in a tank division when his convoy came under attack.
He and four other soldiers stole a car and encountered the man on a bicycle, shooting him in cold blood, according to the prosecutors.
The International Criminal Court said Tuesday it was deploying its largest-ever field team to Ukraine, with 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff being sent into the field to gather evidence of alleged atrocities.
The US State Department also announced it was creating a special unit to research, document and publicise Russian war crimes.
The Conflict Observatory will “capture, analyse, and make widely available evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine”, the department said Tuesday.
Their applications will jettison decades of military non-alignment to join the alliance as a defence against feared aggression from Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Monday NATO’s expansion may trigger a response from Moscow.
But the main obstacle to their membership comes from within the alliance despite NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeatedly insisting the two countries would be welcomed “with open arms”.
Turkey has accused Sweden and Finland of acting as a hotbed for terrorist groups and its president insists Ankara will not approve expansion.
Any membership bid must be unanimously approved by NATO’s 30 members.
Niinisto said Tuesday he was “optimistic” Finland and Sweden would be able to secure Turkey’s support.
Andersson and Niinisto are to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington Thursday to discuss their historic bids.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the bloc offered the bids its “full support” after a meeting of EU defence ministers in Brussels.
“This will increase the number of member states that are also members of NATO. And this will strengthen and increase the cooperation and the security in Europe,” he said.
This was “an important geopolitical change”, he noted.
Rising public support
After a marathon debate lasting a day-and-a-half, 188 out of 200 Finnish lawmakers voted in favour of NATO membership, a dramatic reversal of Finland’s military non-alignment policy dating back more than 75 years.
“Our security environment has fundamentally changed,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told parliament Monday at the start of the debate.
“The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia,” she said.
Finland spent more than a century as part of the Russian empire until it gained independence in 1917. It was then invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939.
Finns put up a fierce fight during the bloody Winter War, but were ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of their eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.
According to public opinion polls, more than three-quarters of Finns want to join the alliance, almost three times as many as before the war in Ukraine began on February 24.
Swedish public support has also risen dramatically, albeit more modestly than in Finland, at around 50 percent.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde signed the application letter Tuesday.
The turnaround is also dramatic in Sweden, which remained neutral throughout World War II and has stayed out of military alliances for more than 200 years.
Ankara has thrown a spanner in the works with its last-minute objections.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Helsinki and Stockholm of harbouring militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
Sweden has also suspended any arms sales to Turkey since 2019 over Ankara’s military operation in neighbouring Syria.
“We will not say ‘yes’ to those (countries) who apply sanctions to Turkey to join NATO,” Erdogan said Monday, adding: “Neither of the countries has a clear stance against terror organisations.”
Diplomatic sources told AFP that Turkey blocked a NATO declaration Monday in favour of Sweden and Finland’s membership.
Sweden and Finland have sent delegations to Turkey to meet with Turkish officials.
“Sweden is delighted to work with Turkey in NATO and this cooperation can be part of our bilateral relations,” Sweden’s Andersson said, emphasising that Stockholm “is committed to fighting against all types of terrorism”.
Russia warned Finland and Sweden Monday they were making a “grave mistake” in their moves to join NATO as Ukraine braced for a new push by Moscow’s forces in its eastern Donbas region.
The two Nordic countries are poised to jettison decades of military non-alignment due to fears of aggression from Russia, with which Finland shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border.
Helsinki officially declared its intention to join the NATO military alliance Sunday and Sweden’s ruling party has also backed membership, with the issue now being debated by both countries’ parliaments.
Russia, whose invasion of neighbouring Ukraine on February 24 has sparked global outrage, killed thousands and created millions of refugees, warned there would be consequences.
“This is another grave mistake with far-reaching consequences,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters Monday, warning “the general level of military tensions will increase”.
“They should have no illusions that we will just put up with this,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Russia has already suspended electricity supplies to Finland, citing payment issues.
But Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told lawmakers: “Our security environment has fundamentally changed.
“The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia.”
– ‘Dead-end’ –
Ukraine’s Western allies have sent weapons and money to help it resist Russia’s forces, and NATO promised Sunday support for as long as it was needed.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock promised military assistance “for as long as Ukraine needs”.
Since failing to take the capital Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Moscow has focused on the eastern industrial region of Donbas, near the Russian border and home to pro-Russian separatists.
“We are preparing for new attempts by Russia to attack in Donbas, to somehow intensify its movement in the south of Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Sunday.
But Western intelligence has predicted its campaign will stall amid heavy losses and fierce resistance.
“The occupiers still do not want to admit that they are in a dead-end and their so-called ‘special operation’ has already gone bankrupt,” Zelensky added.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich told local television Sunday that Russian troops were being redeployed towards the Donbas region after withdrawing from Kharkiv.
The defence ministry later announced Ukrainian troops had regained control of territory near Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city near the Russian border, which has been under constant attack since the invasion.
They “drove out the Russians and claimed the state border”, it said in a statement posted on social media alongside a video showing armed Ukrainian soldiers gathered around a yellow-and-blue-painted border post.
Some Russian forces remain to try and block the advance, and air sirens sounded in Kharkiv city in the early hours, according to the Ukrainian army.
Arestovich said the Russian troops that had been withdrawn were being sent towards Lugansk and “their task is to take Severodonetsk,” the easternmost city still held by Ukraine.
“Well, something is not working for them.”
– Waiting it out –
The fall of Severodonetsk would grant the Kremlin de facto control of Lugansk, one of two regions — along with Donetsk — that comprise Donbas.
But Russia’s attempt to cross a river to encircle it has been repelled with heavy losses of equipment, according to Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday.
And Russian-occupied railway bridges leading to Severodonetsk were blown up, the Ukrainian military said on Facebook late Sunday.
Ukraine’s presidency reported Monday two people were killed and nine were wounded, including a child, in shelling on a Severodonetsk hospital.
After almost three months of fighting, more than six million refugees have fled Ukraine, and another eight million have been internally displaced, according to UN agencies.
But some are trying to wait it out.
In Lysychansk, on the other side of the river from Severodonetsk, a policeman tried in vain to evacuate Angelina Abakumova and her children.
“It is dangerous here now. Then it changes and it becomes dangerous over there. What is the point of going back and forth?” she told AFP, on her way back to her basement.
But the battles here have grown in number as the Russians try to gain control of hills overlooking a road providing Lysychansk’s last link to the outside world.
“The people who sit here just think that everything will be fine,” said the policeman, Viktor Levchenko, of the dozens hiding in the underground corridors and intertwining basements of one of the city’s more fortified buildings.
“But unfortunately, everything is not fine.”
– ‘Behind schedule’ –
Russia’s defence ministry claimed it had launched strikes overnight on two Ukrainian command posts and five weapons depots in the regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk.
But British defence chiefs said Russia’s offensive in Donbas had “lost momentum”.
Demoralised Russian troops had failed to make substantial gains and Moscow’s battle plan was “significantly behind schedule”, UK defence intelligence said.
It added Russia may have lost a third of the ground combat forces it committed in February and was “unlikely to dramatically accelerate” its advance in the next 30 days.
Ukrainian commanders say they expect a turning point in their favour by August, but Western powers have cautioned the conflict will turn into a war of attrition stretching into next year.
– EU meets on oil ban –
Ukraine’s Western allies have levelled unprecedented economic sanctions against Moscow to punish it for the invasion, but at the same time, European nations continue to buy Russian oil and gas.
EU foreign ministers met Monday in Brussels to discuss a proposed ban on Russian oil, but Hungary is blocking the move, arguing it would hammer the Hungarian economy.
The war is taking its toll on the continent’s growth. The European Commission sharply cut its eurozone growth forecast for 2022 to 2.7 percent, blaming skyrocketing energy prices.
Separately, French automaker Renault has handed over its Russian assets to the Russian government, marking the first major nationalisation since the onset of sanctions.
Renault controlled 68 percent of AvtoVAZ, the largest carmaker in Russia with the country’s top brand Lada, but had been under pressure to pull out of Russia following the invasion.
Finland on Saturday sought to allay Moscow’s fears about its bid to join NATO, as fierce fighting raged in Ukraine’s east, slowing a Russian advance.
Wives and parents of Ukrainian fighters trapped in the bowels of a besieged steel plant in the country’s south meanwhile made a desperate appeal to China to help secure their release.
And the wealthy countries of the G7 vowed to further turn the screw on the Kremlin with fresh sanctions, pledging never to recognise the borders it is attempting to redraw through destructive force.
One of Europe’s fiercest conflicts since World War II has seen more than six million people flee for their lives, and according to Kyiv has caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to civilian infrastructure.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin urged his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to move immediately to implement a ceasefire, in their first talks since before the conflict began on February 24.
But one senior Ukrainian general predicted a turning point in the months ahead, and said the fighting could be over by the end of the year.
In Turin, Italy, a world away from the fighting, a wave of popular support has made Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra the bookmakers’ favourite to triumph at the world’s biggest live music event — the Eurovision Song Contest.
But even there the war has cast a shadow.
“We have one band member who joined the territorial defence of Kyiv on the third day of the war,” said lead singer Oleh Psiuk.
“We are very worried about him, and we hope to see him safe once we are back.”
Finland and Sweden are poised to jettison decades of military non-alignment to join NATO as a defence against feared further aggression from Russia.
Moscow has warned Finland, with whom it shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border, that it would take “reciprocal steps”.
Finland’s grid operator said Russia halted electricity supplies overnight, though Finnish officials said power supplied by Sweden had made up for the losses.
Ahead of talks with NATO members in Berlin, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he was “confident that in the end we will find a solution and Finland (and) Sweden will become members of NATO”.
Earlier, in a phone call initiated by Helsinki, President Sauli Niinisto had a “direct and straightforward” conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Avoiding tensions was considered important,” Niinisto’s office said.
Putin, however, told him that Finland joining NATO would be a “mistake”, insisting that Russia posed “no threat to Finland’s security”, the Kremlin said.
Finland’s bid to join NATO is expected to be announced this weekend.
Finland and Sweden will first have to win over NATO member Turkey on the sidelines of the informal gathering of the alliance’s foreign ministers in Berlin.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said he opposed their membership bids and accused both countries of harbouring “terrorist organisations”.
Both Nordic countries have sizable Kurdish populations. Ankara has regularly accused Stockholm in particular of harbouring members of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation in the UK, European Union and the United States.
It has also been angered by Sweden’s assertion that the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917 constituted genocide.
But Turkey on Saturday expressed readiness at least to discuss Finnish and Swedish membership.
“A big majority of the Turkish people are against the membership of those countries who are supporting PKK terrorist organisation,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said upon arrival for the Berlin talks.
He added, however, that “these are the issues that we need to talk, of course, with our NATO allies as well as these countries.”
In Ukraine, the government and military said Ukrainian forces were holding back a Russian assault in the strategic eastern Donbas region, stifling Moscow’s attempt to annex the south and east.
Since late March, Russia has increasingly turned its attention to eastern Ukraine after failing to take the capital Kyiv.
The governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said Ukrainian forces had prevented Russian attempts to cross a river and encircle the city of Severodonetsk.
Defence and military intelligence officials in London and Washington both said Russian forces had sustained heavy losses as they attempted the river crossing and had failed to make significant progress.
The Ukrainian general staff said troops had managed to push Russian forces out of Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv in the northeast — a priority target for Moscow.
“The enemy’s main efforts are focused on ensuring the withdrawal of its units from the city of Kharkiv,” a spokesman said.
Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov meanwhile said in a video on Telegram that Ukrainian forces were counterattacking in the direction of the northeastern city of Izyum.
Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said the months ahead could prove decisive.
“The breaking point will be in the second part of August,” he told Britain’s Sky News television.
“Most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year.”
Appeal to China
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday met Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republican minority in the US Senate, and a delegation of US senators in Kyiv.
A Democratic contingent led by House speaker Nancy Pelosi had visited Kyiv earlier.
On Friday, Zelensky said his troops would fight to recapture all occupied territory, and those under siege, including in the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.
There, the last defenders of the city are holed up in a warren of underground tunnels and bunkers at the vast Azovstal steelworks under heavy bombardment.
The United Nations and Red Cross helped to evacuate women, children and the elderly from the plant whey there were sheltering earlier this month.
But local officials said around 600 fighters from Ukraine’s Azov regiment were wounded and needed to be brought out for medical treatment.
In Kyiv, five wives and a father of fighters trapped at the plant appealed directly to China’s President Xi Jinping to step in.
“China has a big influence on Russia and on Putin personally. We ask for him to intervene,” said one man, Stavr Vychniak.