Ukrainian forces began a counteroffensive Saturday near the Russian-controlled town of Izium in northeastern Ukraine, a regional governor said. Ukraine wants to push Russia from its staging area there and prevent it from encircling thousands of Ukrainian troops on the eastern front of the Donbas.
The Russians turned their focus on the Donbas after they failed to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, at the start of the war. But Ukraine has clawed back some of its territory there, including its second-largest city in the northeast, Kharkiv.
Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said. “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city, as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv.”
Fighting was also fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk. The governor of the eastern Luhansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, said Ukrainian forces repulsed Russian attempts to cross the river and encircle the city. However, Oleh Zhdanov, an independent Ukrainian military analyst, said Ukraine failed to stop Russia’s advance.
“There’s heavy fighting on the border with Donetsk region, from the side of Popasna,” Gaidai also said, reporting heavy losses of equipment and personnel by the Russians.
While Russian troops have taken some villages and towns in the Donbas, Ukraine’s forces have retaken others, with neither seeming to make much progress.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Finnish counterpart Saturday that it would be a “mistake” for Finland to join NATO, according to a statement from the Kremlin.
The two leaders spoke by phone Saturday in a call initiated by Finland.
“The conversation was direct and straightforward, and it was conducted without aggravations. Avoiding tensions was considered important,” Niinisto was quoted as saying in a statement by his office.
A Kremlin statement released after the call said Putin told Niinisto that abandoning Finland’s policy of neutrality would have a negative impact on Russian-Finnish relations.
Niinisto and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Thursday that they want the country to join NATO “without delay,” a move that would be a major policy shift for the traditionally neutral country in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Putin stressed that the end of the traditional policy of military neutrality would be a mistake since there is no threat to Finland’s security,” the Kremlin statement said.
Russia cut off electricity to Finland in apparent retaliation for its bid to join NATO. Finland gets 10% of its energy from Russia and the void is now being filled by Sweden.
Sweden, another traditionally neutral Scandinavian country, is also expected to ask to join NATO in the coming days.
Turkey initially expressed concerns about Finland and Sweden joining the security alliance, but Saturday said it isn’t closing the door on the possibility. Any NATO enlargement requires the unanimous consent of the existing members.
The United States has said it will support a NATO application by Finland or Sweden should they choose to apply.
U.S. senators visit
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell led a delegation of Republican senators on a visit to Ukraine on Saturday. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the visit was a powerful signal of bipartisan American support for Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian presidential administration.
Zelenskyy urged the American lawmakers to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, according to The Kyiv Independent, an English-language newspaper in Ukraine, and to impose stronger sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile, the Group of Seven industrialized nations meeting in Germany vowed to put more pressure on Russia with fresh sanctions and said it would never recognize the borders the Kremlin is attempting to redraw through force.
Impact of NATO expansion
The German Marshall Fund’s Michael Kimmage told VOA that Finland’s joining NATO would shake up the security order in Europe, both for NATO and for Russia.
“It’s a very, very long border, and of course it brings NATO very close to — or will bring NATO if it all goes through — very close to St. Petersburg. And at the same time, it will give NATO a lot more territory right on the Russian border to defend. So those are big steps. Those are big changes,” Kimmage said.
Russia has warned against NATO expansion and said Finland’s and Sweden’s joining would bring “serious military and political consequences.”
“The expansion of NATO and the approach of the alliance to our borders does not make the world and our continent more stable and secure,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, for the first time since February 18.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement that Austin “urged an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication.”
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.