Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Finland’s leaders on Thursday backed a bid to join NATO, and Sweden could do the same within days, in a historic realignment on the continent, 2 1/2 months after the sent one Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sparked a shiver of fear from Moscow’s neighbors.
The Kremlin responded by warning it would be forced to take “military-technical” retaliatory measures.
Meanwhile, Russian forces bombed areas in central, north and east Ukraine, including the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, as part of their offensive to capture the Donbass industrial region, while Ukraine recaptured some towns and villages in the north-east.
The first war crimes trial against a Russian soldier since the outbreak of the conflict is scheduled to open in Kyiv on Friday. A 21-year-old captured member of a tank unit is accused of shooting dead a civilian on a bicycle in the first week of the war.
Finland’s President and Prime Minister announced that the Nordic country should apply immediately for membership in NATO, the military defense pact formed in part against the Soviet Union.
“They (Russia) caused this. Look in the mirror,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said this week.
While the country’s parliament is yet to weigh in, the announcement means Finland will all but certainly apply – and be approved – although the process could take months to complete. Sweden is also considering placing itself under NATO protection.
It would mean a major shift in Europe’s security landscape: Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland has switched to neutrality after being defeated by the Soviets in World War II.
Public opinion in both countries shifted dramatically after the invasion in favor of NATO membership, fueling fears in countries along Russia’s flank that they might be next.
Such an expansion of the alliance would leave Russia surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic and Arctic, and would be a major setback for Putin, who had hoped to split and push back NATO in Europe but instead is experiencing the opposite.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden with open arms.
Russia’s foreign ministry warned that Moscow “will be forced to take retaliatory measures, military-technical and otherwise, to counter emerging threats to its national security.”
NATO’s delivery of arms and other military support to Ukraine was already crucial to Kiev’s surprising success in preventing the invasion, and the Kremlin again warned Thursday in chilling terms that the aid would lead to a direct conflict between NATO and Russia could lead.
“There is always a risk that such a conflict will turn into an all-out nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for everyone,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council.
While Russia’s advance in Donbass has been slow, its forces have gained some ground and captured some villages.
Four civilians were killed Thursday in three communities in Donetsk region, which is part of Donbass, the regional governor reported.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia’s concentration on the Donbass left its remaining troops around the north-eastern city of Kharkiv vulnerable to counterattacks by Ukrainian forces, which had recaptured several towns and villages around the city.
Russian missile strikes on Thursday killed one person and wounded three in a Kharkiv suburb, the regional governor said.
Fighting in the east has driven many thousands of Ukrainians from their homes.
“It’s terrible there now. We left under fire,” said Tatiana Kravstova, who left the city of Siversk with her 8-year-old son Artiom on a bus towards downtown Dnipro. “I don’t know what they were aiming at, but they were aiming at civilians.”
Ukraine also said Russian forces fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian troops towards Zaporizhia, which was a safe haven for civilians fleeing Mariupol, and attacked in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions to the north.
At least three people were killed in night air strikes near Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian military. It said Russian troops had fired rockets at a school and dormitory in Nowhorod-Siversky and some other buildings, including private homes, had also been damaged.
And eight to 12 Russian missiles hit an oil refinery and other infrastructure in central Ukraine’s industrial hub Kremenchuk on Thursday, the region’s acting governor Dmytro Lunin wrote in a Telegram post. At the beginning of April, the last fully functional refinery in Ukraine was paralyzed by an attack.
In the southern port of Mariupol, largely reduced to rubble with little food, water or medicine, or what the mayor dubbed a “medieval ghetto,” Ukrainian militants continued to hold out at the Azovstal Steel Works, Ukraine’s last stronghold resistance in the city.
Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Vereshchuk said negotiations are underway with Russia to secure the release of 38 seriously wounded Ukrainian defenders from the plant. She said Ukraine hopes to exchange them for 38 “significant” Russian POWs.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Jari Tanner in Helsinki and other AP staffers around the world contributed.
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