KYIV, Ukraine, May 16, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Finland and Sweden on Monday to expect a "response" for applying to join NATO as Ukraine braced for a new push by Moscow's forces in its eastern Donbas region.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on Monday confirmed her country would apply to join the military alliance, the day after Finland -- which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia -- said the same.
The two Nordic countries are giving up decades of military non-alignment over fears they could be next in line following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Russia, whose war has sparked global outrage, killed thousands and created millions of refugees, warned that NATO's expansion would have consequences.
The move poses "no direct threat for us... but the expansion of military infrastructure to these territories will certainly provoke our response", Putin told a meeting of a Moscow-led security alliance.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had earlier called it a "grave mistake with far-reaching consequences".
Russia has already suspended electricity supplies to Finland, citing payment issues.
But Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told lawmakers: "Our security environment has fundamentally changed.
"The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia."
- 'Behind schedule' -
Despite the resources of its giant neighbour, Ukraine has managed to repel Russian forces for longer than many initially thought, fortified by weapons and cash from Kyiv's Western allies.
NATO on Sunday promised its open-ended support, with German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock saying it would provide military assistance "for as long as Ukraine needs".
Since failing to take the capital Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Moscow is currently focusing on the eastern region of Donbas, near the Russian border and home to pro-Russian separatists.
"We are preparing for new attempts by Russia to attack in Donbas, to somehow intensify its movement in the south of Ukraine," President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Sunday.
But British defence chiefs said Russia's offensive in Donbas had "lost momentum".
Demoralised Russian troops had failed to make substantial gains and Moscow's battle plan was "significantly behind schedule", UK defence intelligence said.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich told local television Sunday that Russian troops were being redeployed towards Donbas after withdrawing from Kharkiv, the second-largest city near the Russian border.
The defence ministry later announced Ukrainian troops had regained control of territory near Kharkiv, which has been under constant attack since the invasion.
Arestovich said the Russian troops that had been withdrawn were being sent towards Lugansk and "their task is to take Severodonetsk," the easternmost city still held by Ukraine.
Ukraine's presidency reported Monday that two people were killed and nine were wounded, including a child, in shelling on a Severodonetsk hospital.
The fall of Severodonetsk would grant the Kremlin de facto control of Lugansk, one of two regions -- along with Donetsk -- that comprise Donbas.
But Russia's attempt to cross a river to encircle it has been repelled with heavy losses of equipment, according to Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday.
And Russian-occupied railway bridges leading to Severodonetsk were blown up, the Ukrainian military said on Facebook late Sunday.
- Waiting it out -
Fierce fighting over almost three months of war has caused six million refugees to flee Ukraine, and another eight million have been internally displaced, according to UN agencies.
But some are trying to wait it out.
In Lysychansk, on the other side of the river from Severodonetsk, a policeman tried in vain to evacuate Angelina Abakumova and her children.
"It is dangerous here now. Then it changes and it becomes dangerous over there. What is the point of going back and forth?" she told AFP, on her way back to her basement.
But the battles here have grown in number as the Russians try to gain control of hills overlooking a road providing Lysychansk's last link to the outside world.
"The people who sit here just think that everything will be fine," said the policeman, Viktor Levchenko, of the dozens hiding in the underground corridors and intertwining basements of one of the city's more fortified buildings.
"But unfortunately, everything is not fine."
- Mariupol evacuation -
One of the most totemic battles in the war has been for Mariupol, the southern port city which has largely fallen to Russian forces except for final hold-outs at the Azovstal steel plant.
Russia's defence ministry said Monday it had reached a deal to evacuate wounded soldiers from the plant, where hundreds of Ukrainian troops remain holed up in underground tunnels.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukrainian officials of the deal.
A group of women whose partners are fighting at Azovstal have been touring European nations in recent weeks, hoping someone can save them.
"We don't know which country can really help us. That's why we are reaching out to everyone," Olha Andrianova, 30, told AFP in Paris after visiting Poland, Germany and the Vatican, where they briefly met Pope Francis.
Ukrainian commanders say they expect a turning point in their favour by August, but Western powers have cautioned the conflict will turn into a war of attrition stretching into next year.
- EU meets on oil ban -
Ukraine's Western allies have levelled unprecedented economic sanctions against Moscow to punish it for the invasion, but at the same time, European nations continue to buy Russian oil and gas.
EU foreign ministers met Monday in Brussels to discuss a proposed ban on Russian oil being blocked by Hungary, which said it would cost 15 to 18 billion euros ($16 to $19 billion) to prepare its economy for the move.
Portugal's Foreign Minister Joao Gomes Cravinho said it could take "a couple of weeks" to hammer out agreement, a timescale that would take the debate up to the next full summit of EU leaders.
The war meanwhile is taking its toll on the continent's growth. The European Commission sharply cut its eurozone growth forecast for 2022 to 2.7 percent, blaming skyrocketing energy prices.
Separately, French automaker Renault has handed over its Russian assets to the Russian government, marking the first major nationalisation since the onset of sanctions.
Renault controlled 68 percent of AvtoVAZ, the largest carmaker in Russia with the country's top brand Lada, but had been under pressure to pull out of Russia following the invasion.