NATO welcomes Nordic members as Ukraine pushes back Russian troops

  • Finland expected to announce bid to join NATO
  • Ukraine shuts down important route for Russian gas to Europe
  • Russia imposes sanctions on Gazprom units in Europe, US
  • Ukrainian troops try to cut off Russian supply lines on the battlefield

KYIV/BRUSSELS, May 12 (Reuters) – Finland is expected to announce Thursday its intention to join NATO with Sweden likely to follow soon after, diplomats and officials said, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affects European security and reforming the Atlantic military alliance.

NATO allies expect Finland and Sweden to join soon, five diplomats and officials told Reuters, paving the way for a greater troop presence in the Scandinavian region during the year-long ratification period. read more

In the wider Scandinavian region, Norway, Denmark and the three Baltic states are already NATO members, and the addition of Finland and Sweden would likely infuriate Moscow, which says NATO expansion poses a direct threat to its own security.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited the issue as a reason for his actions in Ukraine, which has also expressed a desire to eventually join the alliance.

Moscow has also repeatedly warned Finland and Sweden not to join the alliance, threatening “serious military and political consequences”.

Asked on Wednesday whether Finland would provoke Russia by joining NATO, President Sauli Niinisto said Putin would be to blame. “My reaction would be that you caused this. Look in the mirror,’ Niinisto said. read more

On the front lines, Ukraine said Wednesday it had pushed back Russian forces in the east and cut off gas flows on a route through Russian territory, raising the specter of an energy crisis in Europe.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said it had recaptured Pytomnyk, a village on the main road north of the second-largest city of Kharkiv, about halfway across the Russian border.

In another village near Kharkov, recaptured by Ukrainian troops in early April, Tatyana Pochivalova returned to find her house destroyed in ruins.

“I did not expect such a thing, such aggression, such destruction,” said a crying Pochivalova. “I came and I kissed the ground, I just kissed it. My house, there is nothing. Where should I live, how should I live?”

The advance appears to be the fastest Ukraine has made since it drove Russian troops out of the capital Kiev and northern Ukraine in early April.

If sustained, it could allow Ukrainian forces to threaten the supply lines for Russia’s main strike force, and bring the rear logistical targets in Russia itself within artillery range.

In the south, the Ukrainian army said early Thursday that it had destroyed two tanks and an ammunition depot in the Russian-controlled Kherson region.

The Kremlin calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to demilitarize a neighboring country that threatens its security. It denies targeting civilians.

Ukraine says it poses no threat and that the deaths of thousands of civilians and the destruction of cities show that Russia is waging a war of conquest.

GAS SUPPLY

Wednesday’s move by Ukraine to cut off Russian gas supplies through territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists was the first time the conflict has directly disrupted shipments to Europe.

Gas flows from Russia’s export monopoly Gazprom to Europe via Ukraine fell by a quarter after Kiev said it was forced to stop all flows from one route, via the Sokhranovka transit point in southern Russia.

Ukraine accused Russian-backed separatists of transferring supplies. read more

Should the supply constraint continue, it would be the most direct impact on European energy markets to date.

Moscow has also imposed sanctions on the owner of the Polish part of the Yamal pipeline that transports Russian gas to Europe, as well as the former German unit of Gazprom, whose subsidiaries handle gas consumption in Europe.

The implications for Europe, which buys more than a third of its gas from Russia, were not immediately clear.

Berlin said it is investigating the announcement. A spokesman for the Ministry of Economy said the German government was “taking the necessary precautions and preparing for various scenarios”.

BURNED TANKS

As the fighting continued, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, across the border from Kharkov, said a village had been shelled from Ukraine, injuring one person.

The Ukrainian authorities have so far confirmed few details about the advance through the Kharkiv region.

“We are making successes towards Kharkov, where we are steadily pushing back the enemy and liberating population centers,” said Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, deputy head of the Operations Main Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff.

In southern Ukraine, where Russia has taken much of the territory, Kiev has said Moscow plans to hold a fake referendum on independence or annexation to make its occupation permanent.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday that it is up to residents of the Russian-occupied Kherson region to decide whether to join Russia, but such a decision must have a clear legal basis.

Russian forces have also continued to bomb the Azovstal steel mill in the southern port of Mariupol, the last bastion of Ukrainian defenders in a city

“If there is a hell on earth, it is there,” wrote Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko, who has left the city.

Ukraine says it is likely that tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mariupol. Ukrainian authorities say between 150,000 and 170,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents still live amid the Russian-occupied ruins. read more

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Reporting by Reuters agencies; Written by Costas Pitas and Stephen Coates; Editing by Lincoln Feast

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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