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NATO sees Ukraine victory possible as defenders continue to foil Russia

West says Russians losing momentum as Britain assesses Moscow has lost a third of its forces; Sweden moves to follow Finland in bid to join Western military alliance

Victoria, 7, uses a plastic Kalashnikov rifle to shoot balls at a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a street attraction in the center of Lviv, Ukraine, on May 14, 2022. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
Victoria, 7, uses a plastic Kalashnikov rifle to shoot balls at a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a street attraction in the center of Lviv, Ukraine, on May 14, 2022. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Almost three months after Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine, its military faced a bogged-down war, the prospect of a bigger NATO and an opponent buoyed Sunday by its wins on and off the battlefield.

Finland decided to seek NATO membership as top diplomats from the Western alliance met in Berlin. The leaders of the militarily neutral country said the invasion had changed Europe’s security landscape — though NATO’s chief declared that “Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned.”

“Ukraine can win this war,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, adding that the alliance must continue to give the country military support.

Several hours later, Sweden’s governing party also endorsed joining NATO, a move that could lead to the country’s application within days.

The two nonaligned Nordic nations becoming part of the alliance would represent an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cited NATO’s post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe as a threat to Russia. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.

While Moscow lost ground on the diplomatic front, Russian forces failed to make territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.

Boxes filled with clothing donations are scattered inside a destroyed cultural center in Derhachi, eastern Ukraine, May 15, 2022. A Russian airstrike destroyed the venue on May 12. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Ukraine said it held off Russian offensives Sunday in the country’s east, and Western military officials said the campaign Moscow launched there after its forces failed to seize Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, had slowed to a snail’s pace.

Ukraine, meanwhile, celebrated a morale-boosting victory in the Eurovision Song Contest. The folk-rap ensemble Kalush Orchestra won the glitzy pan-European competition with its song “Stefania,” which has become a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war.

President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed his nation would claim the customary winner’s honor of hosting the next annual competition.

“Step by step, we are forcing the occupiers to leave the Ukrainian land,” Zelensky said.

Russian and Ukrainian fighters are engaged in a grinding battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas. Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped soldiers are based in eastern Ukraine, where they have fought Moscow-backed separatists for eight years.

Even with its setbacks, Russia continues to inflict death and destruction across Ukraine. Over the weekend, its forces hit a chemical plant and 11 high-rise buildings in Siverodonetsk, in the Luhansk area of the Donbas, the regional governor said. He said nine people were injured.

Gov. Serhii Haidaii said Russian troops also were preparing for another attempt to cross the strategically important Siverskiy Donets River, two days after Moscow suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge.

Russia also continued striking railways, factories and other infrastructure across Ukraine. Russian missiles destroyed “military infrastructure facilities” in the Yavoriv district of western Ukraine, near the border with Poland, the governor of the Lviv region said.

Lviv is a major gateway for the Western-supplied weapons Ukraine has acquired during the war.

The Ukrainian military said Sunday that it had held off a renewed Russian offensive in the Dontesk area of the Donbas. Russian troops also tried to advance near the eastern city of Izyum early Sunday, but Ukrainian forces stopped them, the governor of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, Oleh Sinegubov, reported.

Ukrainian officials’ claims could not be independently verified, but Western officials also painted a somber picture for Russia.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update Sunday that the Russian army had lost up to one-third of the combat strength it committed to Ukraine in late February and was failing to gain any substantial territory.

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry said on Twitter.

The assessments of Russia’s war performance by Ukraine’s supporters came as Russian troops retreated from around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, after bombarding it for weeks. The regional governor said there had been no shelling in the city for several days, though Russia continued to strike the wider Kharkiv region.

The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million is only 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, and was a key military objective earlier in the war.

A Ukrainian soldier heats water in a town north Derhachi, east Ukraine, May 15, 2022. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

With the Russians pushed back for now, Ukrainian troops cleared villages on the outskirts of Kharkiv, and some residents returned home.

After failing to capture Kyiv following the February 24 invasion, Putin shifted the invasion’s focus the Donbas, aiming to seize territory not already occupied by the Moscow-backed separatists.

Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appeared to be a back-and-forth slog without major breakthroughs on either side.

In his nightly address Saturday, Zelensky said “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and Russian troops were “still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious.”

In the southern Donbas, the Azov Sea port of Mariupol is now largely under Russian control, except for a few hundred Ukrainian troops who have refused to surrender and remain holed up in the Azovstal steel factory. The Ukrainian prosecutor-general’s office said Sunday that regional prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Moscow’s alleged use of restricted incendiary bombs at the steelworks. While international law recognizes legal uses of phosphorus and other incendiary munitions on the battlefield, it bars their use to directly target enemy personnel or civilians.

Turkey’s presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said the country had offered to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians by ship from Azovstal, according to official state broadcaster TRT. Kalin said Russian and Ukrainian officials had not given Turkey a clear answer regarding the evacuation plan, but that it was still on the table.

The invasion of Ukraine has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they could be next. The government of Finland, which shares both a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) land border and the Gulf of Finland with Russia, formally announced that it would apply for NATO membership.

“This is a historic day,” President Sauli Niinisto said Sunday in Helsinki.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said joining NATO would help guarantee peace for Finland.

“We have had wars with Russia, and we don’t want that kind of future for ourselves or for our children,” she said.

In a phone call Saturday, Putin told the Finnish president there were no threats to Finland’s security and joining NATO would be an “error” and “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations.”

Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto makes a point during a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, May 11, 2022. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Sweden’s governing Social Democratic Party is set to announce its decision on NATO membership Sunday. If it comes out in favor, as is expected, an application to join the Western military alliance could happen within days.

NATO operates by consensus, and the Nordic nations’ potential bids were thrown into question Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not of a favorable opinion.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had discussed Turkey’s concerns at Sunday’s NATO meeting, especially Sweden and Finland’s alleged support for Kurdish rebel groups and their restrictions on weapons sales to Turkey.

“It’s not because we are against the expansion of NATO, but because we believe countries who support terror and follow such policies against us should not be NATO allies,” Cavusoglu said.

Earlier in the war, Zelensky indicated that Ukraine would agree not to pursue NATO membership if it would end the fighting. However, the country has taken steps to join the European Union.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he had “a very rational discussion” with Germany’s delegation at a meeting of Group of Seven major economies. The German delegates told him Ukraine will “inevitably” be granted EU candidate status, Kuleba said Sunday.

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