NATO Advances Sweden, Finland Toward Membership as Fighting Rages in Eastern Ukraine

From a Wall Street Journal story by Thomas Grove and Daniel Michaels headlined “NATO Advances Sweden, Finland Toward Membership as Fighting Rages in Eastern Ukraine”:

Russian artillery pounded Sloviansk, one of Ukraine’s last lines of defense to protect the remaining Kyiv-held strongholds in eastern Ukraine, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Tuesday advanced plans to add Sweden and Finland to the alliance.

Vadim Lyakh, the mayor of Sloviansk, reported “massive shelling” of the city in a Facebook post and said the central market was on fire. Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of military administration in the eastern region of Donetsk, said on Telegram that at least two people died and seven were injured.

Russian troops’ advance toward the Donbas cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region, the last main cities in the region still under Ukrainian control, follows months of slow Russian gains in the region.

Overnight, Moscow’s forces launched artillery attacks to take Dolyna, about 10 miles north of Sloviansk, but were held back by Ukrainian forces, the Ukrainian General Staff of the Armed Forces said in a statement. A Ukrainian battalion commander who had been part of the battle said Ukrainian forces inflicted equipment and personnel losses using newly acquired American systems together with Soviet-era artillery.

Since Russian troops gained control over eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region in recent days, Moscow has been looking to boost its gains in the more populous province of Donetsk. Donetsk and Luhansk collectively form the Donbas region. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow broke away from Ukraine to create Kremlin-controlled statelets in the two Donbas regions. Russia is now looking to push its control to the administrative boundaries of the provinces.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has largely united the West and bolstered NATO. Finland and Sweden on Tuesday became official invitees to join the military alliance after ambassadors of the 30 current members approved their accession protocols. Within hours of the NATO announcement, Canada, Denmark and Norway said they had ratified the two countries’s accession.

The formality follows a political agreement among members’ leaders to invite the duo last week at NATO’s annual summit in Madrid. NATO’s political agreement itself followed a three-way deal struck last Tuesday among Turkey, Sweden and Finland about the two countries’ accession after previous objections regarding their membership from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan had said the two countries—particularly Sweden—hadn’t sufficiently addressed Turkish concerns about terrorism and related issues. The trio’s deal ended weeks of uncertainty and removed a potential distraction from the summit.

As invitees, the two countries can participate in almost all NATO meetings except nuclear planning sessions and some intelligence briefings. They also don’t benefit from the alliance’s mutual-defense pact, which states that an attack on one member represents an attack on all, until their membership process is fully completed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow will wait to see what new threats Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership will create for Russia. Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s security council and one of Mr. Putin’s most trusted advisers, on Tuesday accused the Atlantic security bloc of aggravating tensions.

“NATO’s military infrastructure is closing in on our borders and actively boosting military might on its eastern flank,” said Mr. Patrushev, Russian news agency TASS reported. He added that the actions were “leading to an escalation of tensions and the destabilization of European security.”

Individual NATO states, with the U.S. at the fore, have been pouring weapons into Ukraine to fight Russia.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu accused the West of prolonging the conflict with its large-scale weapons deliveries, which have amounted to 28,000 tons of cargo since the start of the war, Russian state news agency RIA reported him as saying.

Russia has deployed various units and brigades to the fight in Donbas, and the capture of Lysychansk, the last city to fall to the Russians in Luhansk region, has shown developing capabilities among Russian forces to coordinate on the battlefield, said the U.K. Ministry of Defense.

“Unlike in previous phases of the war, Russia has probably achieved reasonably effective coordination between at least two Groupings of Forces,” the ministry said. The Russian military’s central grouping is under the command of Gen. Col. Alexander Lapin and the southern grouping was likely under recently appointed Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the ministry said.

Ukrainian forces have lost two large cities in Luhansk province in recent weeks, but the U.K. Defense Ministry said it expected Ukrainian defenses to prove more effective as the war moved to the remaining cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

“There is a realistic possibility that Ukrainian forces will now be able to fall back to a more readily defendable, straightened front line,” it said in a statement.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said Tuesday it would launch a $17 million project in Ukraine, which is one of the world’s top five grain exporters. The project is meant to ensure adequate storage facilities in the country and help ease exports which have been hit by Russia’s invasion.

Thomas Grove is a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal where he covers Israel and the Palestinian territories. He spent more than a decade in Moscow, where he covered the 2014 Ukraine war, Russia’s military and Moscow’s role in great power competition.

Daniel Michaels is Brussels Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal.

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