Fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, but Eurovision victory lifts spirits

Ukraine’s armed forces battled a fierce Russian attack on the east of the country on Sunday after a victory in the Eurovision Song Contest gave the country a much-needed morale boost.

President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Saturday that the war in his country could lead to global food shortages, adding that the situation in Ukraine’s Donbas is “very difficult”.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 24, has turned its attention increasingly to the east of the country since late March after failing to take the capital Kiev.

Western analysts believe that President Vladimir Putin has set his sights on annexing southern and eastern Ukraine in the coming months, but that his forces appear to be meeting strong resistance.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is increasingly shifting the balance of power in Europe, with Finland and Sweden poised to jettison decades of military non-alignment to join NATO in defense against feared further aggression from Moscow.

Helsinki will officially announce its offer for membership on Sunday.

But like a conflict that has dragged millions of displaced people into its third month, Ukrainians got a much-needed boost of optimism when a rap lullaby that blends folk and modern hip-hop rhythms won the Eurovision Song Contest.

Covering out a host of over-the-top acts at the quirky annual musical event, “Stefania” was written by frontman Oleh Psiuk as a tribute to his pre-war mother — but the nostalgic lyrics have taken on inordinate significance due to the conflict. .

“Help Ukraine and Mariupol please! Help Azоvstal right now,” Psiuk said in English from the podium, referring to the port city’s underground steel factory where Ukrainian soldiers are surrounded by Russian troops.

There was also optimism from the Kiev military intelligence chief, who told Britain’s Sky News on Saturday that the war could reach a “breaking point” in August and end in defeat for Russia before the end of the year.

Major General Kyrylo Budanov told the news network he was “optimistic” about the current course of the conflict.

‘Heavy fights’

On the ground, the governor of the eastern region of Lugansk, Serhiy Gaidai, said Ukrainian forces had prevented Russian attempts to cross a river and encircle the city of Severodonetsk.

“There is heavy fighting on the border with the Donetsk region,” said Gaidai, who reported large Russian losses in equipment and personnel.

“Of interceptions [of phone calls]we understand that a whole [Russian] battalion has refused to attack because they see what is happening.”

Aerial photos showed dozens of destroyed armored vehicles on the riverbank and wrecked pontoon bridges.

British military intelligence also said Russian troops suffered heavy casualties trying to cross the river.

The high-risk maneuver reflected “the pressure Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine,” it added.

But Moscow’s troops had failed to make any significant progress despite the concentration of troops in this area.

In Washington, a senior US defense official said most of the activity was now in the Donbas area.

Kharkov’s regional governor, Oleh Synegubov, meanwhile, said in a video posted to Telegram that Ukrainian forces are counter-attacking toward the northeastern city of Izium.

And the Ukrainian General Staff said troops had managed to drive Russian troops out of Kharkov, a priority target for Moscow.

“The main efforts of the enemy are to ensure that its units withdraw from the city of Kharkiv,” a spokesman said.

Zelensky said Friday that his troops would fight to retake all occupied territories, including in the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.

There, the city’s last defenders hide in a maze of underground tunnels and bunkers at the massive Azovstal steel factory, which is under heavy bombardment.

The United Nations and the Red Cross helped evacuate women, children and the elderly from the factory they were housed earlier this month.

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the city’s mayor, said on Telegram that a “huge convoy” of 500 to 1,000 cars had arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhya.

“Finally we are waiting at home for our relatives from Mariupol,” he said.

balance of power

Sweden and Finland are poised to join NATO, whose grid operator said Russia cut electricity supplies overnight.

Finnish officials said the power supplied by Sweden had made up for the losses.

Before talks with NATO members in Berlin, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he was “confident that we will eventually find a solution and that Finland [and] Sweden will join NATO.”

Earlier, President Sauli Niinisto had a “direct and straightforward” conversation with Putin in a Helsinki-initiated phone call.

“Avoidance of tension was considered important,” Niinisto’s office said.

However, Putin told him that Finland’s accession to NATO would be a “mistake”, stressing that Russia “does not pose a threat to Finland’s security,” the Kremlin said.

Ukraine’s Zelensky also met with a delegation of senior US lawmakers on Saturday, with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell reaffirming Washington’s support for the country.

“Ukrainians are fighting valiantly against a deranged invader and have already succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of skeptics,” McConnell said in a statement.

“They are willing and determined to keep fighting for the win.”

food crisis

The war is also having deep ripple effects on the global economy, with wheat prices soaring in the wake of the invasion.

“Now support for Ukraine – and especially with weapons – means working to prevent global famine,” Zelensky said in his speech.

“The sooner we liberate our country and guarantee the security of Ukraine, the faster the normal state of the food market can be restored,” he said.

Before the invasion, Ukraine exported 4.5 million tons of agricultural products every month through its ports: 12 percent of the world’s wheat, 15 percent of maize and half of sunflower oil.

But with the ports of Odessa, Chornomorsk and others cut off from the world by Russian warships, supplies can only travel on congested land routes that are far less efficient.

India had previously said it was ready to fill some of the war-induced supply shortages.

But on Saturday, the country banned wheat exports without government approval, which was sharply criticized by Germany’s G7 agriculture ministers, who said such measures would “exacerbate the crisis”.

The G7 ministers urged countries not to adopt restrictive measures that could put further pressure on product markets.

“They spoke out against export freezes and also call for markets to be kept open,” said German Agriculture Minister Cem Ozdemir, whose country holds the group’s rotating presidency.

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