The conflict in Ukraine, where the future of the last fighters entrenched in the Azovstal factory in Mariupol remained uncertain, will be the watermark of the meeting, this Thursday, May 19, of the American president with the Swedish and Finnish leaders, who are knocking on the door of NATO. The Secretary General of the Atlantic Alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, is also due to discuss at midday with the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, whose country has been a member of NATO since 1949.
The two Nordic countries have just begun the process of joining NATO by submitting their formal candidacy on Wednesday. “I warmly welcome and strongly support the historic candidacies of Finland and Sweden,” said US President Joe Biden. According to the spokesperson for the executive, Karine Jean-Pierre, he will receive Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö at the White House on Thursday morning.
Historically non-aligned, these two Nordic countries have undergone a spectacular turnaround since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, which also swung their public opinion, previously reluctant to join NATO. Finland shares more than 1300 km of borders with Russia.
Pending the completion of this membership process – which can take several months and requires member unanimity – “the United States will work with Finland and Sweden to remain vigilant against any threat to our common security and to deter and deal with any aggression or threat of aggression,” the White House said.
While Western countries are working to close ranks to try to extinguish any possible inclinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin to attack other countries, fighting continues on Ukrainian soil. In particular at the Azovstal steelworks, in the strategic port of Mariupol (southeast). The Russian Defense Ministry said that “959 (Ukrainian) fighters, including 80 wounded, have surrendered” since Monday. Information that Ukraine had not commented on.
“The commanders and high-ranking fighters of the Azov (regiment) have not yet emerged” from the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in this port city, assured Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian separatist leader. According to him, a thousand members of this paramilitary unit integrated into the Ukrainian army are still hiding there.
Ukraine gave the same figure, but last week. The Russian army concentrated its efforts on Wednesday “on blocking our units near Azovstal” with artillery fire and airstrikes, the Ukrainian forces’ general staff reported.
The total capture of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, would constitute an important advance for Russia. It would allow it to connect by land the Crimean peninsula (south), which Moscow annexed in 2014, to parts of Donbass (east) already in the hands of pro-Russian separatists. But the city is destroyed “90%” and “40% of its infrastructure” is “unrecoverable”, indicated in early April its mayor, Vadim Boïtchenko.
“The Russians are stealing from Mariupol. The occupants are now trying to put the commercial port in order to export the equivalent of millions of dollars of cereals, metallurgical products” in particular, argued on Telegram the town hall of Mariupol.
According to a US official speaking on condition of anonymity, “Russian officials acknowledge that despite claiming to be the ‘liberators’ of the Russian-speaking city of Mariupol, Russian troops are committing serious acts in the city, including beating and electrocuting city officials, and looting homes.” And to continue: “Russian officials are concerned that these acts may further incite the inhabitants of Mariupol to resist the Russian occupation.”
Investigations by the Ukrainian authorities and foreign bodies are underway concerning the numerous accusations of abuses and war crimes against Russian troops. The International Criminal Court has dispatched a team of 42 investigators and experts, its largest mission ever sent to the field. “More than 8,000 cases” of alleged war crimes have been identified in Ukraine,” Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said at the end of April.
A war crime trial opened in kyiv on Wednesday, the first since the invasion. The 21-year-old soldier Vadim Chichimarine is accused of having killed, at the end of February, a 62-year-old civilian who was traveling, unarmed, on a bicycle. He pleaded guilty and faces life imprisonment.
The Kremlin said it had “no information” on the case, claiming that the war crimes attributed to the Russian army were “fakes or staged”. For Ms. Venediktova, this appearance in court is in any case “a clear signal”. “No executioner (…) will escape justice,” she promised, stressing that she had opened more than 11,000 war crimes investigations. This while the war is not over.
In eastern Ukraine, “the occupiers bombed 43 localities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions”, causing the death of “at least 15 civilians”, the Ukrainian army said last night. The Russians attempt a breakthrough near Popasna and towards Severodonetsk, one of the major Ukrainian-held cities in this area. They seek to “encircle” and “defeat” Ukrainian units “in order to take full control of the Donetsk, Lugansk and Kherson regions”, noted the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.
The American Institute of War Studies (ISW) has, in this regard, mentioned the preparation of a major battle for Severodonetsk. Eastern Ukraine has been the priority objective of Russian troops since their withdrawal from the vicinity of the Ukrainian capital at the end of March.
President Volodymyr Zelensky wanted to be reassuring: “The Ukrainian Armed Forces (…) will liberate our land step by step. How long will it take? Only the real situation on the battlefield will give the answer to this question. We are trying to do it as soon as possible, that’s for sure,” he insisted in his daily video message on Wednesday evening.
In this context, the talks between Moscow and kyiv “are not moving forward”, the Kremlin ruled on Wednesday, which accused the Ukrainian negotiators of “total lack of will” to reach a political settlement. The day before, the Ukrainian presidency had placed the responsibility for the suspension of the negotiations on Russia.
On the diplomatic level, the United States reopened its embassy in kyiv, closed just before the Russian offensive. At the same time, the Kremlin announced the expulsion of 34 French diplomats, 24 Italians and 27 Spaniards, in retaliation for those of Russian diplomats shortly after the outbreak of the invasion. An act “strongly condemned” by Paris, described as “hostile” by Rome and “rejected” by Madrid.
But these retaliatory measures do not undermine the determination of Westerners to help Ukraine by delivering armaments and providing funds. Volodymyr Zelensky said he was “grateful” for the “new exceptional macro-financial assistance” offered on Wednesday by the European Union, in an amount of “up to nine billion euros in 2022”. Brussels has presented a 210 billion euro plan to free the EU “as quickly as possible” from Russian gas imports.
The finance ministers of the G7 (United States, Japan, Canada, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Germany), meeting Thursday and Friday in Germany, want in particular to complete a new round of table to cover the Ukrainian budget for the quarter in courses, but also to fight against rising food prices. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, for his part, called on Moscow not to hinder Ukrainian grain exports, and on Westerners to open access for Russian fertilizers to world markets.