Vladimir Putin’s troubled war sees battlefield, diplomatic reverses

Vladimir Putin's troubled war sees battlefield, diplomatic reverses

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nearly three-month invasion of neighboring Ukraine suffered reverses on the battlefield and in the halls of power Sunday, as long-neutral Finland said it would apply to join the NATO military alliance and neighboring Sweden signaled it wouldn’t be far behind.

An updated British intelligence survey Sunday estimated that Russia had lost nearly a third of the ground forces it committed to the invasion that began Feb. 24, putting in doubt the Kremlin’s hopes for a more modest military success focused on holding and expanding territory in Ukraine’s south and east.

Ukrainian military officials, meanwhile, said a counteroffensive by its forces against besieging Russian positions near Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, had been so successful that some Ukrainian troops had advanced as far as the Russian border.

“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Sunday by video link as alliance foreign ministers gathered in Berlin to discuss the war and the need for more supplies for Ukrainian forces.

“They failed to take Kyiv. They are pulling back from Kharkiv, and their major offensive in Donbas has stalled,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Manpower shortages, logistical problems and fierce resistance from local Ukrainian forces have left the Russian offensive in the south seriously behind schedule, according to the latest assessment from Britain’s Defense Ministry.

SEE ALSO: Finnish leader holds his ground on NATO in talk with Putin

“Despite small-scale initial advances, Russia has failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the past month whilst sustaining consistently high levels of attrition,” the ministry said on Twitter. “Russia has now likely suffered losses of one-third of the ground combat force it committed in February.”

Adding insult to injury, Ukrainian spirits were buoyed over the weekend when the Kalush Orchestra, the folk-rap group that was the country’s entry in the continent-wide annual Eurovision song contest, took first prize Saturday night for its song “Stefania,” clearly benefiting from anti-Russian sentiment in the popular telephone voting.

Not only was Russia’s entry barred from the competition this year because of the war, but Italian police said they thwarted efforts by the Russian-based hacker network Killnet to corrupt the production and the voting for the final held in Turin.

Nordic candidates

Some last-minute prodding by Mr. Putin also failed to derail the momentum that could soon bring two sophisticated, modern militaries into NATO.

In a weekend phone call with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Mr. Putin warned his Finnish counterpart that joining the Western military alliance would be a “mistake” that would have an unspecified “negative impact” on bilateral relations.

SEE ALSO: Sweden takes big step toward bid for NATO

But just hours later, Mr. Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin made it official, announcing Sunday at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki that they were formally requesting Parliament approve a bid to join the 30-country alliance.

“This is a historic day. A new era begins,” Mr. Niinisto told a press conference Sunday morning.

Top alliance officials and most European leaders have indicated they are strongly in support of the bid, although Turkey has expressed reservations.

Unanimity among the existing alliance members is required to admit a new country.

And just hours after that, Sweden also said it was taking a major step toward ending its longstanding policy of neutrality as the ruling Social Democratic Party said it now favored applying for NATO membership as well.

Public and elite opinion in both Scandinavian countries have shifted sharply since the Russian invasion of Ukraine Feb. 24.

Sweden’s center-left Social Democrats had long opposed formal NATO membership in part because they did not want to provoke Moscow. And Finland, part of the Russian Empire until after World War I, has long been politically deferential to its giant neighbor.

“The party board has at its meeting on May 15, 2022 decided that the party will work toward Sweden applying for membership in NATO,” the Social Democrats said in a statement.

Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson is expected to begin the process for a formal application soon.

The two Scandinavian countries would be the 31st and 32nd members of NATO, and top alliance officials have said in recent days both applications would likely be approved quickly.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other NATO foreign ministers are in Berlin discussing the state of the war in Ukraine, and the anticipated Finnish and Swedish bids are likely to be high on the agenda as well.

Turkey has raised some questions about the bids, citing what it said were significant Kurdish exile communities in both countries with links to violent separatist movements inside Turkey.

But Mr. Stoltenberg, who has strongly championed adding Finland and Sweden, said Sunday he thought the impasse could be finessed.

“I’m confident that we will be able to address the concerns that Turkey has expressed in a way that doesn’t delay the membership or the accession process,” he told reporters in a video link.

And while some Republicans in Washington have criticized some of President Biden’s decisions in the war, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who happened to be leading a congressional delegation that was in Stockholm on Sunday after a visit to Kyiv, predicted that NATO expansion would get bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

“They will be important additions to NATO, if they choose to join,” Mr. McConnell told reporters while in Stockholm, adding that “I think the United States ought to be first in line to ratify the treaty for both these countries to join.”

Still concerned

The Kremlin has shown no overt signs it is conceding defeat in the Ukraine campaign, which continues to get heavily favorable coverage in the state-controlled Russian press.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on a trip to Algeria last week that Russia’s isolation in the fight has been overstated, and that many countries share Moscow’s view that Ukraine and NATO were the main instigators of the war.

But Mr. Putin passed up a chance for a major political or military gesture at the national Victory Day commemorations last week, and Russian defense officials have yet to order a general mobilization to draft more troops to replace those lost in the Ukraine fighting.

Ukraine’s forces appear highly motivated and are being resupplied by a steady stream of armaments and intelligence from the U.S. and its allies.

Mr. McConnell predicted Sunday that a now-$40 billion U.S. military, economic and humanitarian aid package – delayed by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, last week on a parliamentary maneuver – should soon be moving through the Senate and heading for Mr. Biden’s desk.

“We expect to invoke cloture – hopefully by a significant margin – on the motion to proceed on Monday, which would set us up to approve the [aid bill] on Wednesday,” Mr. McConnell said Sunday.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian officials have been heartened by the unexpected course of the war so far, and say Russian forces appear to be settling in for a “third phase” defending the modest territorial gains they have made in the Donbas region, after having abandoned the fight for Kyiv and other major urban targets.

“Russian forces are still trying to show at least some victory,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address to the nation over the weekend, an approach he called “insane” after 80 days of largely unsuccessful operations.

“Step by step we’re forcing the occupier to leave our country,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.

And Ukraine may be getting a little extra help from an unexpected source: Kalush Orchstra band leader Oleh Psiuk told reporters Sunday the group was going to sell its winning Eurovision statuette at auction and donate the proceeds to a charity fund that helps the Ukrainian military.

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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