Ukraine warns of new Russian offensive; Sweden, Finland closer to joining NATO

Ukraine said Russia has begun building a military strike force aimed at Krivy Rih, the hometown of President Volodymyr Zelensky, while NATO approaches its most significant expansion in decades as the coalition responds to an invasion of Ukraine.

Both the US Senate and the Italian Parliament on Wednesday approved Finland and Sweden joining the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Under NATO membership, which must be ratified by all 30 member states, an attack on one member is an attack against all.

“This historic vote sends an important signal of the continued, bipartisan American commitment to NATO, and to ensuring that our coalition is prepared to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement. “

Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 24, has repeatedly warned Finland and Sweden against joining NATO.

30 NATO allies signed an accession protocol last month, allowing them to join the US-led nuclear-armed coalition after its members had ratified the decision.

Ratification can take up to a year.

Ukraine on Wednesday rejected suggestions by Putin’s friend, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, that Russia wanted a “negotiable solution” to the five-month war and said any talks would be contingent on a Russian ceasefire and the withdrawal of its troops.

Possible efforts for peace talks in March went nowhere.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Thursday that Ukraine was seeking the opportunity to speak “directly” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help end the war.

In an interview with the SCMP, Mr Zelensky urged China to use its political and economic influence over Russia to end the fighting.

“It’s a very powerful state. It’s a powerful economy… so (it) can affect Russia politically, economically. And China is (also) a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council,” Mr. Zelensky is quoted as saying.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in its update on Thursday that on the battlefield, Russian forces were engaged in considerable military activity in many parts of Ukraine with tanks, barrels and rocket artillery.

Earlier, Ukraine had warned that Moscow could prepare for a new offensive in southern Ukraine.

The governor of the Sumy region on the border with Russia, Dmitry Zhyvitsky, said three cities were shelled by Russian forces on Wednesday, firing a total of 55 missiles.

There were no casualties, but there was damage to homes and business premises.

He said eight artillery shells hit the residential parts of the Krasnopilska community.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the mayor of Nikopol, west of Zaporizhzhya in central Ukraine, said on his Telegram channel that his city had been shelled overnight.

Oleksey Erestovich, adviser to the President of Ukraine, said in an interview on YouTube that the whole point of the Russian offensive in the east was to force Ukraine to withdraw troops from the area that actually poses a threat – Zaporizhzhya.

In March, Russia was accused of shelling dangerously close to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant after its forces had taken over it in the first weeks of the invasion.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Moscow of using Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant as a “nuclear shield” in attacks on Ukraine’s military.

Reuters was not able to verify the battlefield reports.

Russia denies that it targets civilians, but many towns and cities have been destroyed and thousands have been killed in the biggest conflict in Europe since World War Two.

Ukraine and its Western allies have accused the Russian military of war crimes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation” to get rid of fascists in Ukraine.

Ukraine and the West said Putin initiated “imperial” land grabs without provocation.

The war has led to a global energy and food crisis. Russia and Ukraine produce about a third of the global wheat and Russia is Europe’s main energy supplier.

An agreement between Moscow and Kyiv, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to allow the safe passage of grain ships from Ukraine, has been seen as a rare diplomatic success in the war.

The first ship carrying Ukrainian grain since the start of the war passed through the Bosphorus Strait on Wednesday.

The ship, the Rajoni, sailed for the Lebanese port of Tripoli carrying 26,527 tonnes of corn from Odessa in the Black Sea early Monday.

Mr Zelensky said Ukraine needed to export at least 10 million tonnes of grain to help reduce its budget deficit, which was running at $5 billion a month.

A senior Turkish official said three ships could leave Ukrainian ports daily after Rajoni’s departure, while Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said 17 more ships loaded with agricultural produce were waiting to depart .