Small Wins Buoy Ukraine; West Says Russians Losing Momentum

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A Ukrainian National Guard soldier takes a break in a house used as a temporary base
Ukraine said it was holding off Russian offensives Sunday in the country's east.

Almost three months after Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine, its military faced a bogged-down war, the prospect of a bigger NATO and a defending country buoyed by its win in a hugely popular pan-European music competition Sunday.

Finland announced it would apply to join NATO, as top diplomats from the Western alliance, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, gathered Sunday in Berlin to discuss the war. Sweden's governing party plans to announce its position on seeking NATO membership later Sunday.

The two nonaligned Nordic nations becoming part of the alliance would pose 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.

Ukraine said it was holding off Russian offensives Sunday in the country's east. Western military officials said the campaign Moscow launched there after its forces failed to seize Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, had slowed to a snail's pace.

"The brutal invasion (by) Russia is losing momentum," NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoana said. "We know that with the bravery of the Ukrainian people and army, and with our help, Ukraine can win this war."

Ukraine, meanwhile, celebrated a morale-boosting victory in the Eurovision Song Contest. The folk-rap ensemble Kalush Orchestra won the glitzy, televised Eurovision contest with its song "Stefania," which has become a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war. Votes from home viewers across Europe cemented the victory.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed 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.

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.

The Ukrainian military said Sunday that it had held off a renewed Russian offensive near Bakhmut and Slavyansk, in the eastern Dontesk region. A regional official said Russian troops also made renewed attempts at a breakthrough near the eastern city of Izyum early Sunday, but were held back by Ukrainian forces.

"The enemy is constantly checking the positions of our armed forces, trying to break through them, but has had no success and again suffered heavy human and equipment losses," Oleh Sinegubov, the governor of Ukraine's Kharkiv region, wrote in a Telegram post.

His claims could not be independently verified.

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 continued to suffer "consistently high levels of attrition" while failing to gain any substantial territory.

"Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days," the ministry said on Twitter.

The assessments of Russia's war performance by Ukraine's supporters came as Russian troops retreated from around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, after bombarding it for weeks.

The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million is only 50 miles southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, and was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.

Ukraine's military has said Moscow is focused now instead on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in an attempt to deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications in the country's east.

Ukrainian troops are clearing villages on the outskirts of Kharkiv after pushing the Russians back, and some residents were returning.

"The war has shifted to a new level of distance artillery fighting -- we fire at them, they fire at us," said a Ukrainian commander who gave only his first name, Serhii.

Russia is also striking railways, factories and other infrastructure across Ukraine. A Russian missile hit "military infrastructure facilities" in the Yavoriv district of western Ukraine, near the border with Poland. early Sunday morning.

There was no immediate information on dead or injured, Lviv Regional Governor Maksym Kozytskyy posted on the Telegram messaging app.

Russia has targeted rail facilities and other critical infrastructure in western Ukraine a major gateway for NATO-supplied weapons. Western officials have said despite the attacks there has been no appreciable impact on Ukraine's ability to resupply its forces.

After failing to capture Kyiv following the Feb. 24 invasion, Putin has shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, aiming to seize territory not already occupied by the Moscow-backed separatists.

Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appears to be a back-and-forth slog without major breakthroughs on either side.

In his nightly address Saturday, Zelenskyy said "the situation in Donbas remains very difficult" and Russian troops were "still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious."

In the southern Donbas, the Azov Sea port of Mariupol is now largely under Russian control, except for a few hundred Ukrainian troops who have refused to surrender and remain holed up in the Azovstal steel factory.

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of Mariupol reportedly was able to reach the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk had said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 severely wounded troops from the steel plant.

Turkey's presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said the country had offered to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians by ship from Azovstal, according to official state broadcaster TRT. Kalin said Russian and Ukrainian officials had not given Turkey a clear answer regarding the evacuation plan, but that it was still on the table.

The invasion of Ukraine has other countries along Russia's flank worried they could be next. The government of long-neutral Finland, which shares both a 830-mile land border and the Gulf of Finland with Russia, formally announced Sunday that it would apply for NATO membership.

"This is a historic day," President Sauli Niinistö, announcing Finland's decision alongside Prime Minister Sanna Marin, said in Helsinki.

Sweden's governing Social Democratic Party is set to announce its decision on NATO membership Sunday. If it comes out in favor, as is expected, an application to join the Western military alliance could happen within days.

NATO operates by consensus, and the Nordic nations' potential bids were thrown into question Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was "not of a favorable opinion."

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused the two countries of supporting Kurdish rebel groups but suggested Turkey would not necessarily block them joining NATO.

"These are the issues that we need to talk, of course, with our NATO allies," he said.

In a phone call Saturday, Putin told the Finnish president that there are no threats to Finland's security and joining NATO would be an "error" and "negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations."

Marin, Finland's prime minister, said joining NATO would help guarantee peace for Finland.

"We have had wars with Russia, and we don't want that kind of future for ourselves or for our children," she said.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.