Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned his Finnish counterpart that relations between the two neighbors could be “negatively affected” if Finland follows through with plans to apply for NATO membership.
The Kremlin’s press service said in a statement that Putin told Sauli Niinisto Finland’s abandonment “of its traditional policy of military neutrality would be an error since there are no threats to Finland’s security.”
“Such a change in the country’s foreign policy could negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations, which had been built in the spirit of good neighborhood and partnership for many years, and were mutually beneficial,” the statement added.
The response came after Niinisto told Putin in a phone conversation that the militarily non-aligned Nordic country, which has a complex history with its vast eastern neighbor, “will decide to apply for NATO membership in the coming days.”
Niinisto’s office said in a statement that the Finnish head of state told Putin how starkly Finland’s security environment had changed after Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, and pointed to Russia’s demands for Finland to refrain from seeking membership in the 30-nation Western military alliance.
“The discussion (with Putin) was straightforward and unambiguous and was held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important,” said Niinisto, Finland’s president since 2012 and one of a handful of Western leaders who have been in regular dialogue with Putin over the past. decade.
Niinisto pointed out that he had already told Putin at their first meeting in 2012 that “every independent nation would maximize its own security.”
“That is still the case. By joining NATO, Finland will strengthen its own security and assume its responsibilities,” Niinisto said.
Niinisto stressed that Finland, despite its likely future membership in NATO, wants to continue to deal with Russia bilaterally in “practical issues generated by the border neighborhood” and hopes to engage with Moscow “in a professional manner.”
According to the Kremlin statement, the two leaders also discussed the “military operation” in Ukraine, and the possibility of achieving a political solution. Putin said negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv had been suspended due to Ukraine’s “lack of interest in a serious and constructive dialogue.”
The phone call was conducted on Finland’s initiative, Niinisto’s office said.
Finland shares a 1,340km border with Russia, the longest by any European Union member.
Russian energy group Inter RAO on Saturday also suspended deliveries of electricity to Finland, according to a statement from the Finnish national electrical grid operator.
But only around 10 per cent of Finland’s electricity is supplied from Russia, and Finnish authorities did not expect electricity shortages.
The Nordic nations’ potential bids were thrown into question Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is “not of a favorable opinion” towards the idea.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet his NATO counterparts, including the Turkish foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.
Russian troops withdraw from around Kharkiv
Ukraine’s general staff said the Russians were pulling back from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern Donetsk province in order to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainians were doing their “maximum” to drive out the invaders and that the outcome of the war would depend on support from Europe and other allies.
“No one today can predict how long this war will last,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address late Friday.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell met with the Ukrainian president Saturday in Kyiv.
A video posted on Zelenskyy’s Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and fellow Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him.
Their trip came after Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, blocked until next week the Senate’s approval of an additional $ US40 billion ($ 58b) to help Ukraine and its allies withstand three-month old invasion.
After Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv following the February 24 invasion, Putin shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukrainian troops have battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The offensive aims to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops, who are based in the east, and to seize parts of the Donbas that remain in Ukraine’s control.
Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the direction the fighting is taking.
But the battle appears to be a back-and-forth syllable with no major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, a city with a prewar population of around 55,000.
Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s forces have also made progress in the east, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day.
Kharkiv, which is not far from the Russian border and only 80 kilometers south-west of the Russian city of Belgorod, has spent weeks of intense shelling.
The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key Russian military objective earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.
Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, he said.
“Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city, as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv.”
Regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past day.
He added that Ukraine had launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers south of Kharkiv which was held by Russia since at least the beginning of April.
Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine has launched counterattacks but failed to halt advance, said Oleh Zhdanov, an independent Ukrainian military analyst.
“The fate of a large portion of the Ukrainian army is being decided – there are about 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.
However, Russian forces suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross the same river – the largest in eastern Ukraine – in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said. It was another sign of Moscow’s struggle to salvage a war gone awry.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops.
The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address that Ukrainians were doing everything they could to drive out the Russians and pushed for the West to increase its support.
“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their maximum,” he said.
“This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”
The Ukrainian leader warned that the war was causing a food crisis around the world as a Russian blockade stops Ukrainian grain from leaving port.
Putin launched the war in Ukraine aiming to thwart NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe.
But the invasion of Ukraine has other countries along the line flank worried they could be next.
Defenders of Ukrainian stronghold continue to repel attacks