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Finland, Sweden ask to join NATO as Russia thrashes Ukraine

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KYIV/MARIUPOL — Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO on Wednesday, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and triggering one of the most significant changes to European security architecture in decades.

The requests came after more than 250 Ukrainian fighters surrendered to Russian forces at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol after weeks of resistance, ending the most devastating siege of the Russian war in Ukraine.

Finland and Sweden were both neutral during the Cold War and their decision to join NATO reflects the profound shift in public opinion in Scandinavia since the Russian invasion on February 24.

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It also expands the Western alliance that Russian President Vladimir Putin had long cited as one of the main justifications for ordering his “special military operation” in Ukraine in February.

“This is a historic moment that we must seize,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a ceremony at which the alliance’s Swedish and Finnish ambassadors handed over their letters of application.

Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say.

Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it had reservations about the new candidate members, but Stoltenberg said he thought the issues could be resolved.

Ankara has said it wants the Scandinavian countries to end support for Kurdish militant groups present on their territory and lift a ban on some arms sales to Turkey.

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US President Joe Biden will meet the leaders of Sweden and Finland at the White House on Thursday to discuss the applications, the White House said.

After weeks of Russia threatening retaliation against NATO plans, Putin appeared to climb down abruptly, saying in a speech Monday that Russia had “no problems” with Finland or Sweden, and that their NATO membership would not be a problem unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.

The surrender of the Mariupol steel plant allowed Putin to claim a rare victory in a campaign that many military analysts believe has stalled.

While both sides discussed a deal that would see all Ukrainian troops leave the steel mill, many details were not yet public, including how many fighters were still inside and whether any form of prisoner swap had been agreed.

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POSSIBLE PRISON EXCHANGE

Buses left the steel mill late Monday in a convoy escorted by Russian armored vehicles. Five arrived in the Russian-occupied city of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said wounded fighters would be treated. Seven buses carrying Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal garrison arrived at a recently reopened prison in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka near Donetsk, a Reuters witness said.

Russia said at least 256 Ukrainian fighters “had laid down their arms and surrendered”, 51 of them seriously injured. Ukraine said 264 soldiers, including 53 wounded, had left.

Video from the Russian Defense Ministry shows fighters leaving the factory, some on stretchers, others with their hands up to be searched by Russian troops.

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There were some women on board at least one of the buses in Olenivka, a Reuters video showed.

The Kremlin said Putin personally guaranteed the detainees would be treated according to international standards, and Ukrainian officials said they could be exchanged for Russian detainees.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Kiev plans to arrange a prisoner exchange for the injured once their condition stabilizes.

Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyansky said there was no deal, tweeting: “I didn’t know English has so many ways to express a single message: The #Azovnazis have surrendered unconditionally.”

TASS news agency reported that a Russian commission planned to interrogate the soldiers, many of them members of the Azov battalion, as part of an investigation into what Moscow calls “crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime.”

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Fighters of the Azov regiment are exalted in Ukraine as heroes, but reviled by the Kremlin as a band of Russia-hating neo-Nazis.

High-ranking Russian lawmakers spoke out against any prisoner swap. Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated fighters “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.

The Azov regiment, founded in 2014 as a far-right voluntary militia to fight Russian-backed separatists, denies being fascist or neo-Nazi. Ukraine says it has been reformed and integrated into the National Guard.

FIGHT FOR DONBAS

The battle for Mariupol is Russia’s biggest victory since the invasion, leaving it in control of the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov and an unbroken stretch of eastern and southern Ukraine. But the port is in ruins, and Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people have died in months of Russian bombing.

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The Russian offensive in the east, meanwhile, appeared to be making little progress, although the Kremlin says all its objectives will be achieved in its attempt to “demilitarize” Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military command said Russia continued to shell Ukrainian positions along the entire frontline in the east on Wednesday.

“Towards Kharkov, the enemy concentrated on maintaining its positions and preventing further advance of our troops,” Ukraine’s general staff said in a statement.

About a third of the Donbas was held before the invasion by Russian-backed separatists. Moscow now controls about 90% of the Luhansk region, but it has failed to make a major breakthrough to the main Donetsk cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk to extend its control over the entire Donbas.

Ukrainian forces have advanced at their fastest pace for more than a month, driving Russian troops out of the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

Ukraine says its troops have reached the Russian border, 40 km (25 miles) north of Kharkov. They have also penetrated at least as far as the Siverskiy Donets River 40 km to the east, where they could threaten Russian supply lines.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev and a Reuters journalist in Mariupol; Additional reporting by Reuters agencies; Writing by Stephen Coates; Editing by Grant McCool, Lincoln Feast, and Nick Macfie.)

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