Lviv, Ukraine —
Leaders of Finland said Sunday that the Nordic nation plans to seek membership in North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move almost certain to escalate geopolitical tensions arising from the Russian war in Ukraine.
At a joint news conference in the presidential palace in Helsinki, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced the decision by Finland—which has long been a neutral country—to apply for entry into the U.S.-led alliance.
“This is a historic day,” Niinisto said. “A new era begins.”
Finland shares a more than 800-mile border with Russia, which views any expansion of the 30-member NATO bloc towards its territory as a grave security threat.
Ukraine’s emergence as a western ally that could potentially join NATO is cited by many experts as a major reason why President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine.
Sweden has already taken steps towards joining NATO. And a bid by Georgia—the former Soviet republic—is again on the table despite Moscow’s vociferous objections.
NATO officials were meeting Sunday in Berlin to consider moves by Finland, Sweden and other nations to join the alliance. NATO was also contemplating additional aid to war-ravaged Ukraine.
Denmark’s foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, dismissed suggestions that objections from Russian President Vladimir Putin could hinder the alliance from accepting new members, Associated Press reported.
“Each and every European country has a fundamental right to choose their own security arrangement,” Kofod told reporters.
“We see now a world where the enemy of democracy number one is Putin and the thinking that he represents,” he said.
The foreign ministers of both Sweden and Finland were scheduled to meet with NATO representatives in Germany after leaders of the two Nordic nations expressed strong interest in joining the defense alliance. Finnish President Niinisto said that he told Russian President Vladimir Putin on a phone call Saturday that the invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed “the security environment of Finland,” and said his country will seek NATO membership “in the next few days.”
The news has been welcomed by the U.S. and several NATO member states, but has angered Russia.
The Kremlin said Saturday that Putin had warned Niinisto that the relationship between the neighbors could be “negatively affected” if Finland applies to join NATO.
And in a sign of the economic power that Russia wields over much of Europe, on Saturday the Finnish power company Fingrid said that Russia cut off electricity supplies to the nation. A representative for the company said that Finland “can cope” and that the power grid would not be interrupted.
Meanwhile, the British Defense Ministry said Sunday that Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region has stalled.
In its latest daily assessment, Britain said that Russia’s advance in the Donbas—where President Putin redirected troops last month after a failed assault in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital– “has lost momentum and fallen significantly behind schedule.”
Despite “small scale initial advances,” the Defense Ministry said, “Russia has failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the past month whilst sustaining considerably high levels of attrition.”
Russia has suffered losses of about one-third of the ground combat troops committed when it invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the British report said. Moscow is “unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the defense ministry concluded.
Official Russian accounts have painted a picture of steady advances in the Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatist forces have controlled territory since 2014. This year’s war has seen Moscow largely gain control of the port city of Mariupol, which is part of the Donbas, while seizing other towns in the region.
Ukrainian officials say their forces are counter-attacking in the east but concede that a long-term battle is likely.
“The situation in Donbas remains very difficult,” President Zelensky said in an overnight address. “Russian troops are still trying to show at least some victory. On the 80th day of the full-scale invasion, it looks especially insane.”
Ukrainian forces do appear to have forced Russian troops to retreat from the vicinity of Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine. The city—Ukraine’s second-most populous, after Kyiv—has faced relentless bombardment since the war began. Much of Kharkiv’s pre-war population of more than 1 million has fled the city. But Ukrainian officials say they are pushing Russian forces away from the city.
On Sunday, air-raid sirens rang through the pre-dawn darkness in the western region of Lviv, which has been largely insulated from the conflict—though Russian missiles have periodically hit targets in the area, which is close to the Polish border. The border zone is a key conduit for supplies and military equipment entering Ukraine.
Four Russian missiles hit “a military infrastructure facility” early Sunday in the town of Yavoriv, near the Polish border, an official statement from the Lviv regional government said. There were no victims, authorities said, but the target was “completely destroyed.” Authorities provided no details on what kind of military facility was hit. The missiles were likely fired from the Black Sea, possibly by submarines, Ukrainian officials said.
Amid the grim war news, many Ukrainians on Sunday were celebrating a cultural victory—a trophy for a Ukrainian band in the popular Eurovision song contest.
President Zelensky pledged that his country would endeavor to host the European competition one day in “Ukrainian Mariupol”—referring the embattled port city now largely under Russian control.
The widespread destruction in Mariupol—along with the displacement of most of the more than 400,000 people who once lived there– have become emblematic of the devastation that the war has brought.
“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” an exuberant Zelensky said in an Instagram post following the Eurovision victory on Saturday of Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra for its song, “Stefania.”
The song—a fusion of of rap and traditional folk in a tribute to the mother of the band’s front-man, Oleh Psiuk– has become a kind of anthem for many Ukrainians. Psiuk made an emotional on-stage appeal on behalf of Ukrainian fighters trapped in a besieged steel plant in Mariupol, and the band’s victory was widely seen as a reflection of European support for Ukraine.
“We will do our utmost to one day host the participants and visitors of Eurovision in Ukrainian Mariupol,” Zelensky said. “Free, peaceful and rebuilt!”