San Francisco Chronicle

Russia losing its momentum, say Western leaders

- By Oleksandr Stashevsky­i and Ciaran Mcquillan Oleksandr Stashevsky­i and Ciaran Mcquillan are Associated Press writers.

KYIV, Ukraine — Almost three months after Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine, its military faces a bogged-down war, the prospect of a bigger NATO and an opponent buoyed Sunday by wins on and off the battlefiel­d.

Top diplomats from NATO met in Berlin with the alliance’s chief and declared that the war “is not going as Moscow had planned.”

“Ukraine can win this war,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenber­g said, adding that the alliance must continue to offer military support to Kyiv. He spoke by video link to the meeting as he recovers from a COVID-19 infection.

On the diplomatic front, both Finland and Sweden took steps bringing them closer to NATO membership despite Russian objections. Finland announced Sunday that it was seeking to join NATO, citing how the invasion had changed Europe’s security landscape. Several hours later, Sweden’s governing party endorsed the country’s own bid for membership, which could lead to an applicatio­n in days.

If the two nonaligned Nordic nations become part of the alliance, it would represent an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cited NATO’s post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe as a threat to Russia. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.

While Moscow lost ground on the diplomatic front, Russian forces also failed to make territoria­l gains in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine said it held off Russian offensives Sunday in the east, and Western military officials said the campaign Moscow launched there after its forces failed to seize the capital of Kyiv has slowed to a snail’s pace.

Ukraine, meanwhile, celebrated a morale-boosting victory in the Eurovision Song Contest. The folk-rap ensemble Kalush Orchestra won the glitzy pan-European competitio­n with its song “Stefania,” which has become a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed that his nation would claim the customary winner’s honor of hosting the next annual competitio­n.

“Step by step, we are forcing the occupiers to leave the Ukrainian land,” Zelenskyy said.

The band’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk, said at a news conference Sunday that the musicians were “ready to fight” when they return home. Ukraine’s government prohibits men between 18 and 60 from leaving the country, but the all-male band’s six members received special permission to go to Italy to represent Ukraine in the contest.

They will return to a country still fighting for survival. Russian and Ukrainian fighters are engaged in a grinding battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas. Ukraine’s most experience­d and best-equipped soldiers are based in eastern Ukraine, where they have fought Moscow-backed separatist­s for eight years.

Even with its setbacks, Russia continues to inflict death and destructio­n across Ukraine. Over the weekend, its forces hit a chemical plant and 11 high-rise buildings in Siverodone­tsk, in the Donbas, the regional governor said. Gov. Serhii Haidaii said two people were killed in the shelling and warned residents still in the city to stay in undergroun­d shelters.

Russia also kept striking railways, factories and other infrastruc­ture across Ukraine. Russian missiles destroyed “military infrastruc­ture facilities” in the Yavoriv district of western Ukraine, near the border with Poland, the governor of the Lviv region said.

Lviv is a major gateway for the Western-supplied weapons Ukraine has acquired during the war.

The Ukrainian military said it held off a renewed Russian offensive in the Dontesk area of the Donbas. Russian troops also tried to advance near the eastern city of Izyum, but Ukrainian forces stopped them, the governor of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, Oleh Sinegubov, said.

The Ukrainian claims could not be independen­tly verified, but Western officials also painted a somber picture for Russia.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligen­ce update Sunday that the Russian army had lost up to one-third of the combat strength it committed to Ukraine in late February and was failing to gain any substantia­l territory.

 ?? Bernat Armangue / Associated Press ?? A firefighte­r works inside a cultural center that was destroyed in a Russian air strike last week in Derhachi, eastern Ukraine. The country says it has held off Russian offensives in the east.
Bernat Armangue / Associated Press A firefighte­r works inside a cultural center that was destroyed in a Russian air strike last week in Derhachi, eastern Ukraine. The country says it has held off Russian offensives in the east.

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