KYIV, Ukraine — Almost three months after Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine, its military faced a bogged-down war, the prospect of a bigger NATO and an opponent buoyed by its wins on and off the battlefield Sunday.
Finland decided to seek NATO membership as top diplomats from the Western alliance met in Berlin. The leaders of the militarily neutral country said the invasion had changed Europe’s security landscape, although NATO’s chief declared that “Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned.”
“Ukraine can win this war,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, adding that the alliance must continue to give the country military support.
Sweden’s governing party plans to announce its position on applying to join NATO later Sunday.
The two nonaligned Nordic nations becoming part of the alliance would pose an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cited NATO’s post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe as a threat to Russia. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.
While Moscow lost ground on the diplomatic front, Russian forces were failing to make territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine said it was holding off Russian offensives Sunday in the country’s east, and Western military officials said the campaign Moscow launched there after its forces failed to seize Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, had slowed to a snail’s pace.
Ukraine, meanwhile, celebrated a morale-boosting victory 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 popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war.
President Volodymyr 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.
Russian and Ukrainian fighters are engaged in a grinding battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas. Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped soldiers are based in eastern Ukraine, where they have fought Moscow-backed separatists for eight years.
Even with its setbacks, Russia continues to inflict death and destruction across Ukraine. Over the weekend, Russian forces hit a chemical plant and 11 high-rise buildings in Siverodonetsk, in the Luhansk area of the Donbas, the regional governor said. He said nine people were injured.
Gov. Serhii Haidal said Russian troops also were preparing for another attempt to cross a strategically important Siverskiy Donets River, two days after Moscow suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge.
Russia also continued striking railways, factories and other infrastructure across Ukraine. Russian missiles destroyed “military infrastructure facilities” in the Yavoriv district of western Ukraine, near the border with Poland, the governor of the Lviv region said.
Lviv is a major gateway for the Western-supplied weapons Ukraine has acquired during the war.
The Ukrainian military said Sunday that it had held off a renewed Russian offensive in the Dontesk area of the Donbas. Russian troops also tried to advance near the eastern city of Izyum early Sunday, but Ukrainian forces stopped them, the governor of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, Oleh Sinegubov, reported.
Ukrainian officials’ claims could not be independently verified, but Western officials also painted a somber picture for Russia.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update Sunday 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 on Twitter.
The assessments of Russia’s war performance by Ukraine’s supporters came as Russian troops retreated from around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, after bombarding it for weeks. The regional governor said there had been no shelling in the city for several days, though Russia continued to strike the wider Kharkiv region.
The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million is only 50 miles southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, and was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.
With the Russians pushed back for now, Ukrainian troops cleared villages on the outskirts of Kharkiv, and some residents returned home.
After failing to capture Kyiv following the Feb. 24 invasion, Putin has shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, aiming to seize territory not already occupied by the Moscow-backed separatists.
Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appeared to be a back-and-forth slog without major breakthroughs on either side.
In his nightly address Saturday, Zelenskyy said “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and Russian troops were “still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious.”
In the southern Donbas, the Azov Sea port of Mariupol is now largely under Russian control, except for a few hundred Ukrainian troops who have refused to surrender and remain holed up in the Azovstal steel factory.
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of Mariupol reportedly was able to reach the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk had said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 severely wounded troops from the steel plant.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said the country had offered to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians by ship from Azovstal, according to official state broadcaster TRT. Kalin said Russian and Ukrainian officials had not given Turkey a clear answer regarding the evacuation plan, but that it was still on the table.
The invasion of Ukraine has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they could be next. The government of Finland, which shares both a 830-mile land border and the Gulf of Finland with Russia, formally announced that it would apply for NATO membership.
“This is a historic day,” President Sauli Niinisto said Sunday in Helsinki.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said joining NATO would help guarantee peace for Finland.
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“We have had wars with Russia, and we don’t want that kind of future for ourselves or for our children,” she said.
In a phone call Saturday, Putin told the Finnish president there were no threats to Finland’s security and joining NATO would be an “error” and “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations.”
Sweden’s governing Social Democratic Party is set to announce its decision on NATO membership Sunday. If it comes out in favor, as is expected, an application to join the Western military alliance could happen within days.
NATO operates by consensus, and the Nordic nations’ potential bids were thrown into question Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not of a favorable opinion.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had discussed Turkey’s concerns at Sunday’s NATO meeting, especially Sweden and Finland’s alleged support for Kurdish rebel groups and their restrictions on weapons sales to Turkey.
“It’s not because we are against the expansion of NATO but because we believe countries who support terror and follow such policies against us should not be NATO allies,” Cavusoglu said.
McQuillan reported from Lviv. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa and other AP staffers around the world contributed to this report.