Nearly three months after Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine, its military faces a bogged-down war, the prospect of a bigger NATO and an opponent buoyed by victories on and off the battlefield Sunday.
Senior NATO diplomats met in Berlin with the alliance’s head and declared that the war “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 offer military support to kyiv. He spoke by video link to the meeting as he recovers from a COVID-19 infection.
On the diplomatic front, both Finland and Sweden took steps to bring them closer to NATO membership despite Russian objections. Finland announced on Sunday that it was seeking to join NATO, citing how the invasion had changed Europe’s security landscape. Several hours later, Sweden’s ruling party endorsed the country’s own bid for membership, which could lead to an application within days.
If the two non-aligned Nordic nations become part of the alliance, it would represent an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cited NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe after the Cold War as a threat to Russia. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.
While Moscow lost ground on the diplomatic front, Russian forces also failed to make any territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine said it halted Russian offensives in the east on Sunday, and Western military officials said the campaign Moscow launched there after its forces failed to take the capital kyiv has slowed to a crawl.
Meanwhile, Ukraine celebrated a morale-boosting victory in the Eurovision Song Contest. The Kalush Orchestra folk-rap ensemble won the dazzling pan-European competition with their song “Stefania,” which became a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised that his nation would claim the usual honor of the winner of hosting the next annual competition.
“Step by step, we are forcing the occupiers to leave the Ukrainian land,” Zelenskyy said.
The band’s leader, Oleh Psiuk, told a news conference on Sunday that the musicians were “ready to fight” when they returned home. The Ukrainian government prohibits men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, but the six members of the boy band received special permission to go to Italy and represent Ukraine in the contest.
They will return to a country that is still struggling to survive. Russian and Ukrainian fighters are engaged in an uphill battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas. Ukraine’s most experienced and well-equipped soldiers are based in eastern Ukraine, where they have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists for eight years.
Even with its setbacks, Russia continues to inflict death and destruction on Ukraine. Over the weekend, his forces attacked a chemical plant and 11 high-rise buildings in Siverodonetsk in Donbas, the regional governor said. Governor Serhii Haidaii said two people were killed in the shelling and warned residents still in the city to stay in underground shelters.
Russia also continued to attack railways, factories and other infrastructure in 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 Western-supplied weapons Ukraine has acquired during the war.
The Ukrainian military said it has stopped a renewed Russian offensive in the Dontesk area of the Donbas. Russian troops also tried to advance near the eastern city of Izyum, but were stopped by Ukrainian forces, Ukraine’s Kharkiv region governor Oleh Sinegubov said.
Ukraine’s claims could not be independently verified, but Western officials also painted a bleak picture for Russia.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update on Sunday that the Russian military had lost up to a third of the fighting force it committed to Ukraine in late February and was failing to gain substantial territory.
“Under current conditions, Russia is unlikely to drastically accelerate its rate of advance in the next 30 days,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Russia’s wartime performance reviews came as Russian troops withdrew from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which was a key military target early in the war and was shelled for weeks. The regional governor said there had been no shelling in the city for several days, although Russia continued to attack the wider Kharkiv region.
After failing to capture kyiv, Putin shifted the focus of the invasion to the Donbas, aiming to seize territory not yet occupied by Moscow-backed separatists.
Airstrikes and artillery shelling make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around the east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it seemed to be a back-and-forth slog with no breakthroughs on either side.
In southern Donbas, the Azov seaport of Mariupol is now largely under Russian control, except for a few hundred Ukrainian soldiers who have refused to surrender and remain in hiding at the Azovstal steel factory.
Many of their wives called on the global community on Sunday to secure the release of “the entire garrison” during an online press conference. The women painted a bleak picture of the situation for the troops, saying they were suffering from severe shortages of food, water and medicine; untreated injuries sometimes led to sepsis.
One of the wives, Natalia Zarytska, told Sky News that her husband told her the ring around the mill was getting smaller and “the end will come soon”.
“In my mind, I think there is no chance, but in my heart I feel that we can save them,” he said.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said regional prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Moscow’s alleged use of restricted incendiary bombs at the steel mill. International law allows some use of incendiary munitions, but prohibits their use to directly attack enemy personnel or civilians.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the country had offered to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians by boat from Azovstal, according to the official state broadcaster TRT.
The Ukraine invasion has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they may be next, including Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometre (830-mile) land border and the Gulf of Finland with Russia. Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in a phone call on Saturday that joining NATO would be a “mistake.”
In neighboring Sweden, after the ruling Social Democratic Party on Sunday endorsed plans to join NATO, the plan was due to be discussed in parliament on Monday, followed by a cabinet announcement.
However, NATO operates by consensus, and possible offers from the Nordic nations were questioned by Turkey’s concerns. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had discussed Turkey’s concerns at Sunday’s NATO meeting, especially Sweden’s and Finland’s alleged support for Kurdish rebel groups and their restrictions on arms sales to Turkey.
But during a Sunday visit to Sweden, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Finland and Sweden would be “important additions” to NATO and the United States should quickly ratify their membership. McConnell is leading a delegation of Republican senators in the region. They paid a surprise visit to kyiv on Saturday in a show of support.
McQuillan reported from Lviv. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, and other AP employees around the world contributed to this report.