Ukrainian forces battled a fierce Russian attack in the east of the country on Sunday after a Eurovision victory gave the country a much-needed morale boost.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned on Saturday that the war in his country risks triggering global food shortages, adding that the situation in Ukraine’s Donbass is “very difficult”.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 24, has been turning its attention to the east of the country since the end of March after failing to take the capital Kyiv.
Western analysts believe President Vladimir Putin has his sights set on annexing southern and eastern Ukraine in the coming months, but his troops appear to be facing stiff opposition.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is increasingly shifting the balance of power in Europe, with Finland and Sweden poised to abandon decades of military non-alignment and join NATO to defend against fears of further aggression from Moscow.
Helsinki will officially announce its application for membership on Sunday.
But as a conflict that has displaced millions of people approaches its third month, Ukrainians were offered a much-needed boost of optimism when a rap lullaby combining folk and modern hip-hop rhythms won the Eurovision Song Contest.
“Stefania,” which crushed a crowd of over-the-top acts at the quirky annual music event, was written by frontman Oleh Psiuk as a homage to his pre-war mother — but its nostalgic lyrics have taken on out-of-pocket meaning because of the conflict.
“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal immediately,” Psiuk said in English from the stage, referring to the port city’s underground steel mills, where Ukrainian soldiers are surrounded by Russian forces.
There was also optimism from Kiev’s military intelligence chief, who told Britain’s Sky News on Saturday that the war could reach a “breaking point” and end in defeat by August Russia before the end of the year.
Major General Kyrylo Budanov told the news channel he was “optimistic” about the current course of the conflict.
Locally, East Lugansk Region Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Ukrainian forces prevented Russian attempts to cross a river and encircle the city of Severodonetsk.
“There is heavy fighting on the border with Donetsk region,” Gaidai said, reporting large Russian losses in equipment and personnel.
“Of wiretaps [of phone calls]we understand that as a whole [Russian] Battalion refused to attack because they see what is happening.”
Aerial photos showed dozens of destroyed armored vehicles on the riverbank and wrecked pontoon bridges.
British military intelligence also said Russian forces suffered heavy casualties attempting to cross the river.
The highly risky maneuver reflects “the pressure Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine,” she added.
But Moscow’s armed forces had “not made any significant progress in this area despite the concentration of forces,” it said.
In Washington, a senior US defense official said most of the activity was now in the Donbass area.
Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synegubov, meanwhile, said in a video on Telegram that Ukrainian forces are launching a counterattack towards the northeastern city of Izium.
And Ukraine’s General Staff said the troops managed to drive Russian forces out of Kharkiv, 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.
On Friday, Zelensky said his troops would fight to retake all occupied and besieged areas, including the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.
There, the city’s last defenders holed up under heavy fire in a maze of underground tunnels and bunkers in the vast Azovstal Steelworks.
The United Nations and the Red Cross helped evacuate women, children and the elderly from the whey factory earlier this month who were taking refuge there.
Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the city’s mayor, said on Telegram that a “huge convoy” of 500 to a thousand cars had arrived in the city of Zaporizhia.
“After all, we are waiting at home for our relatives from Mariupol,” he said.
balance of power
Sweden and Finland, whose grid operators said Russia cut power overnight, are on the verge of joining NATO.
Finnish officials said the energy supplied by Sweden made up for the losses.
Ahead of talks with NATO members in Berlin, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he was “confident that we will eventually find a solution and Finland [and] Sweden becomes a member of NATO.”
Earlier, President Sauli Niinisto had a “direct and direct” conversation with Putin in a Helsinki-initiated phone call.
“Avoiding tension was considered important,” Niinisto’s office said.
However, Putin told him that Finland’s NATO entry was a “mistake” and insisted that Russia posed “no threat to Finland’s security,” the Kremlin said.
Ukraine’s Zelensky also met with a delegation of senior US lawmakers on Saturday, with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell reaffirming Washington’s support for the country.
“Ukrainians are fighting valiantly against a deranged invader and have already achieved victories beyond the wildest dreams of skeptics,” McConnell said in a statement.
“They are willing and determined to keep fighting for victory.”
The war is also having a deep impact on the world economy as wheat prices soar after the invasion.
“Now supporting Ukraine – and especially with arms – means working to prevent world famine,” Zelenskyy said in his address.
“The sooner we liberate our country and guarantee the security of Ukraine, the sooner the normal state of the food market can be restored,” he said.
Before the invasion, Ukraine exported 4.5 million tons of agricultural products monthly through its ports – 12 percent of the world’s wheat, 15 percent of corn and half of the sunflower oil.
But with the ports of Odessa, Chornomorsk and others cut off from the world by Russian warships, supplies can only come from congested land routes that are much less efficient.
India had earlier said it was ready to address some of the supply shortages caused by the war.
But on Saturday the country banned wheat exports without government approval, drawing sharp criticism from Germany’s G7 agriculture ministers, who said such measures “would make the crisis worse”.
G7 ministers urged countries not to take restrictive measures that could further weigh on product markets.
They “spoke out against export bans and also called for markets to be kept open,” said German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir, whose country holds the rotating chair of the group.