The front lines in Ukraine have shifted as Russia made advances in the fiercely contested eastern Donbas region and Ukraine’s military waged a counter offensive near the strategic Russian-held city of Izium.
Near the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces have been on the attack since early this month, commanders said they believed Russia had been withdrawing troops to reinforce positions around Izium to the south.
Ukraine has scored a series of successes since Russia invaded on February 24, forcing Russia’s commanders to abandon an advance on the capital Kyiv and then making rapid gains to drive them from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city.
The president of Finland, which shares a 1300-kilometre border with Russia, confirmed on Sunday that his country would apply to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a major policy shift prompted by Russia’s invasion.
NATO’s deputy secretary-general said he was confident Finland and Sweden, which is also expected to confirm its intention to join, could be swiftly admitted to the alliance, and that concerns raised by Turkey could be overcome.
Since mid-April, Russian forces have focused much of their firepower on trying to capture two provinces known as the Donbas after failing to take Kyiv.
An assessment by British military intelligence issued on Sunday said Russia had lost about a third of the ground combat force deployed in February.
Its Donbas offensive had fallen “significantly behind schedule” and was unlikely to make rapid advances during the coming 30 days, the assessment said.
Keeping up pressure on Izium and Russian supply lines will make it harder for Moscow to encircle battle-hardened Ukrainian troops on the eastern front in the Donbas.
Izium straddles the Donets River, about 120 kilometres from Kharkiv on the main highway heading southeast.
“The hottest spot remains the Izium direction,” regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in comments aired on social media.
“Our armed forces have switched to a counter offensive there. The enemy is retreating on some fronts.”
Russia said on Sunday it had pummelled Ukrainian positions in the east with missiles, targeting command centres and arsenals as its forces seek to encircle Ukrainian units in the battle for Donbas.
But Ukraine’s military also acknowledged setbacks in an update on Sunday morning: “Despite losses, Russian forces continue to advance in the Lyman, Sievierodonetsk, Avdiivka and Kurakhiv areas in the broader Donbas region.”
In western Ukraine near Poland, missiles destroyed military infrastructure overnight and were fired at the Lviv region from the Black Sea, Ukrainian officials said.
There was also no let-up on Sunday in Russia’s bombardment of the steel works in the southern port of Mariupol, where a few hundred Ukrainian fighters are holding out weeks after the city fell into Russian hands, the Ukrainian military said.
Talks were under way to evacuate wounded soldiers from Mariupol in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war, Mr Zelensky said.
Finland and Sweden have both said they see NATO membership as a way of bolstering their security, though Russian President Vladimir Putin has told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that it would be a mistake for Helsinki to abandon its neutrality.
Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats were poised on Sunday to come out in favour of the country joining NATO, paving the way for an application and abandoning decades of military non-alignment.
Germany said on Sunday that it had made preparations for a quick ratification process.
“We must make sure that we will give them security guarantees, there must not be a transition period, a grey zone, where their status is unclear,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said.