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Russian war effort runs into diplomatic, military hurdles

Ukrainian servicemen walk in the forest near a recently retaken village, north of Kharkiv, east Ukraine, on May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- Its military bogged down in a grinding conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia lost diplomatic ground over the weekend as two more European nations moved closer to joining NATO.

    Finland announced Sunday that it was seeking to join the alliance, saying Russia's invasion of Ukraine nearly three months ago had changed Europe's security landscape. Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) land border and the Gulf of Finland with Russia.

    Several hours later, Sweden's governing party endorsed a bid for membership, which could lead to an application in days.

    Those moves would be a serious blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has called NATO's post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe a threat and cited it as a reason for attacking Ukraine. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.

    NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, meeting with top diplomats from the alliance in Berlin, said the war "is not going as Moscow had planned."

    "Ukraine can win this war," he said, adding that NATO must continue to offer military support to Kyiv.

    Britain's Defense Ministry said Monday that Belarus was deploying special operations forces along its border with Ukraine and air defense, artillery and missile units to training ranges in the west of the country.

    Belarusia's forces have not been directly involved in the conflict, though its territory was used as a staging post for Russia's initial advance on Kyiv and Chernihiv. Russia has also launched air sorties and missile strikes from Belarus.

    The presence of Belarusian troops near the border may keep Ukrainian troops pinned down there, preventing them from moving to support the counteroffensive in the Donbas, Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland.

    Russian and Ukrainian fighters have been battling village-by-village for the Donbas, where Ukraine's military has fought Moscow-backed separatists for eight years.

    On Sunday, a Ukrainian battalion in the Kharkiv region, where Russian troops have been pushed back by a counteroffensive, reached the Russian border and made a victorious video there addressed to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The video posted on Facebook by Ukraine's Ministry of Defense shows a dozen fighters around a post covered with blue and yellow, Ukraine's colors.

    One said the unit went "to the dividing line with the Russian Federation, the occupying country. Mr. President, we have reached it. We are here." Other fighters made victory signs and raised their fists.

    Ukraine's military reported Monday that Russian forces were concentrating on "maintaining positions and preventing the advance of our troops toward the border."

    Determining a full picture of the fighting, especially the unfolding battle in the east, is difficult. Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around, and both Ukraine and the Moscow-backed separatists fighting in the east restrict reporting from combat zones.

    The Ukrainian military said that Russian forces were focusing their latest attacks on the Donetsk region in the east, targeting civilian and military sites in multiple towns.

    Russia troops also continued air and artillery strikes around the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, the last holdout of several hundred Ukrainian forces in the strategically important city, the Ukrainian General Staff said.

    In an online news conference, many wives of the besieged soldiers urged the international community to help gain the release of "the entire garrison," which is suffering from a dire lack of food, water and medicine.

    Turkey's presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said his country had offered to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians by ship from Azovstal, the official state broadcaster TRT said.

    Over the weekend, Russian forces hit a chemical plant and 11 high-rise buildings in Siverodonetsk, in the Donbas, regional Gov. Serhii Haidaii said. Russian missiles also destroyed "military infrastructure facilities" in the Yavoriv district of western Ukraine, near the Polish border, the Lviv region's governor said. Lviv is a gateway for Western-supplied weapons to Ukraine.

    And Ukrainian forces stopped an attempted Russian advance near the eastern city of Izyum, the governor of Ukraine's Kharkiv region, Oleh Sinegubov, reported.

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

    Britain's Defense Ministry estimated 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.

    Despite the fighting in the wider Kharkiv region and the threat of Russian missile attacks, many people were returning home to Kharkiv and other cities around Ukraine, Anna Malyar, deputy head of the Ministry of Defense, said.

    Refugees were returning not just because of optimism that the war might ebb.

    "Living somewhere just like that, not working, paying for housing, eating ... they are forced to return for financial reasons," Malyar said in remarks carried by the RBK-Ukraine news agency.

    Countries neighboring Russia and Ukraine worry they could be next after Russia invaded Ukraine.

    Sweden's parliament on Monday was to discuss joining NATO after the ruling Social Democratic Party endorsed a plan to do so. An announcement by the Cabinet was expected to follow.

    During a visit to Sweden, U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday that Finland and Sweden would be "important additions" to NATO and that the U.S. should swiftly ratify their membership. A delegation of GOP senators led by McConnell made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Saturday.

    NATO operates by consensus, however, and Turkey has cast doubts over adding Finland and Sweden as members.

    Ukraine celebrated a morale-boosting victory on Saturday night 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 Ukrainian wartime anthem.

    Zelenskyy 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," Zelenskyy said.

    The band's frontman, Oleh Psiuk, said at a news conference Sunday that the musicians were "ready to fight" when they return home. Ukraine's government prohibits men between 18 and 60 from leaving the country, but the all-male band's six members got special permission to go to Italy to represent Ukraine in the contest.

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