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Finnish leaders want NATO membership ‘without delay’ amid Russia’s war in Ukraine

Finland's President Sauli Niinistö at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Nov. 6, 2017. DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

As heavy fighting continues to rage in eastern Ukraine, Finland has said it intends to apply to join NATO “without delay,” in a major policy shift that sees the Nordic country, which shares a long border with Russia, abandoning decades of neutrality.

“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement on May 12.

“We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”

Ukraine’s military, meanwhile, reported pushing back Russian forces in a counterattack in the east that could mark the beginning of a shift in the momentum of the war.

Ukraine’s armed forces’ General Staff said it had recaptured Pytomnyk, a village on the main highway north of Kharkiv, a city located just 40 kilometers from the border.

In its daily intelligence bulletin, Britain’s Ministry of Defense noted that the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kharkiv area “is a tacit recognition of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population.”

In Helsinki, Niisto and Marin said in their statement that a special committee will announce a formal Finnish decision on a membership bid on May 15.

Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer border and a turbulent relationship with Russia, has stepped up its cooperation with NATO since Russia seized Crimea in 2014.

Finland fought two wars with the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1944, repelling an attempted invasion but losing 10 percent of its territory in the subsequent peace agreement.

Finland maintained its neutrality in the postwar period, acting at times as an intermediary between Moscow and the West.

Another Nordic country, traditionally neutral Sweden, is also expected to announce its intention to join NATO in the coming days, in a major reshaping of the European security architecture prompted by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier on May 12, leaders of the European Union warned that Russia posed the “most direct threat” to world order and called Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine “barbaric” as heavy fighting in the east and south of the country continued.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is in Japan together with European Council President Charles Michel, held talks on May 12 with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that have touched on Moscow’s invasion.

Russia “is today the most direct threat to the world order with the barbaric war against Ukraine, and its worrying pact with China,” von der Leyen said after meeting Kishida.

The head of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) said on May 12 that thousands of corpses have been found in outside Kyiv after the retreat of Russian forces in what may be evidence of war crimes.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the Geneva-based council via video link that authorities were working to verify the violations.

“The scale of unlawful killings, including indications of summary executions in areas to the north of Kyiv, is shocking,” Bachelet told the UNHRC as it debates whether to launch an official investigation into what happened when Russian forces moved into the Kyiv region as they tried to take the capital, only to encounter fierce resistance and eventually pull back in early April.

In the wake of the Russian withdrawal, officials have been looking at whether civilians were summarily killed by Russian troops, as well as a growing body of evidence pointing to possible rape and sexual violence.

Some of the victims had their hands tied behind their back.

Russian authorities claim that their forces have not attacked civilians in Ukraine and said evidence has been staged in order to justify new Western sanctions against Moscow and to disrupt the peace negotiation process.

In Kyiv, Ukraine’s top prosecutor on May 11 disclosed plans for the first war crimes trial of a captured Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian.

On the front line, Ukrainian officials said an area around Zaporizhzhya was among those targeted in fighting on May 11. A Russian rocket attack destroyed unspecified infrastructure, but there were no reports of casualties. The southeastern city has been a refuge for civilians fleeing Mariupol.

Russian forces continue to pound a steel plant in Mariupol that is the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance, its defenders said.

Ukrainian forces also targeted Russian air defenses and resupply vessels on Snake Island in the Black Sea in an effort to disrupt Moscow’s efforts to expand its control over the coastline, according to the British Defense Ministry.

Ukraine said it shot down a cruise missile targeting the Black Sea port city of Odesa.