The conflict in Ukraine, where the future of the last fighters entrenched in the Azovstal factory in Mariupol remained uncertain, will be the watermark of the meeting on Thursday of the American president with the Swedish and Finnish leaders who are knocking on NATO’s door to protect themselves. from Moscow.

The Atlantic Alliance is on the menu on both sides of the ocean since its secretary general Jens Stoltenberg is due to discuss in Copenhagen at midday with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whose country has been a member of NATO since 1949.

On the other hand, Sweden and Finland have just begun the process of integrating NATO by submitting their formal candidacy on Wednesday.

“I warmly welcome and strongly support the historic candidacies of Finland and Sweden,” said US President Joe Biden.

According to executive spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, he will receive Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö at the White House on Thursday morning.

Historically non-aligned, these two Nordic countries have undergone a spectacular turnaround since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, which also swung their public opinion, previously reluctant to join NATO.

Finland shares more than 1,300 km of borders with Russia.

Until this membership process — which can take several months and requires member unanimity — is complete, “the United States will work with Finland and Sweden to remain vigilant against any threat to our security. community and to deter and deal with any aggression or threat of aggression,” the White House said on Wednesday.

While Western countries are working to close ranks to try to extinguish any possible inclinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin to attack other countries, fighting continues on Ukrainian soil. In particular at the Azovstal steelworks, in the strategic port of Mariupol (southeast).

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that “959 (Ukrainian) fighters, including 80 wounded, have surrendered” since Monday. Information that Ukraine had not commented on.

– “Supermen” of Azovstal –

“The commanders and high-ranking fighters of the Azov (regiment) have not yet emerged” from the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in this port city, assured Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian separatist leader. According to him, a thousand members of this paramilitary unit integrated into the Ukrainian army were still hiding there.

Ukraine gave the same figure, but last week. Several hundred civilians had taken refuge in these basements, they were evacuated at the end of April.

The Russian army concentrated its efforts on Wednesday “on blocking our units near Azovstal” with artillery fire and airstrikes, the Ukrainian forces’ general staff reported.

In the streets of the Ukrainian capital, the population paid tribute to the “supermen” of this steel complex. They “achieved impossible things”, commented Andriï, 37.

The total capture of Mariupol, on the Sea of ​​Azov, would constitute an important advance for Russia. It would allow it to connect by land the Crimean peninsula (south), which Moscow annexed in 2014, to parts of Donbass (east) already in the hands of pro-Russian separatists.

But the city is destroyed “90%” and “40% of its infrastructure” is “unrecoverable”, indicated in early April its mayor Vadim Boïtchenko.

“The Russians are stealing from Mariupol. The occupants are now trying to put the commercial port in order to export the equivalent of millions of dollars of cereals, metallurgical products” in particular, argued Wednesday evening on Telegram the town hall of Mariupol.

According to a US official speaking on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, “Russian officials acknowledge that despite claiming to be the ‘liberators’ of the Russian-speaking city of Mariupol, Russian troops are committing serious acts in the city, including the beating and electrocuting city officials, and looting homes.”

“Russian officials are concerned that these acts may further incite the residents of Mariupol to resist the Russian occupation,” he continued.

Investigations by Ukrainian authorities and foreign bodies are ongoing into the numerous accusations against Russian troops of abuses and war crimes. The International Criminal Court has dispatched a team of 42 investigators and experts, its largest mission ever sent to the field.

– War crimes –

“More than 8,000 cases” of alleged war crimes have been identified in Ukraine, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said at the end of April.

A war crime trial opened in kyiv on Wednesday, the first since the invasion.

The 21-year-old soldier Vadim Chichimarine is accused of having shot dead a 62-year-old civilian who was riding an unarmed bicycle in late February. He pleaded guilty and faces life imprisonment.

The Kremlin said it had “no information” on the case, claiming that the war crimes attributed to the Russian army were “fakes or staged”.

For Ms. Venediktova, this appearance in court is in any case “a clear signal”. “No executioner will escape justice,” she promised, stressing that she had opened more than 11,000 war crimes investigations.

This while the war is not over.

In eastern Ukraine, “the occupiers bombed 43 localities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions”, causing the death of “at least 15 civilians”, the Ukrainian army said in the evening.

The Russians are trying to break through near Popasna and towards Severodonetsk, one of the major Ukrainian-held towns in this area, a senior local official warned.

The Russian army is seeking to “encircle” and “defeat” Ukrainian units “in order to take full control of the Donetsk, Lugansk and Kherson regions”, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry noted.

In this regard, the American Institute for War Studies (ISW) mentioned the preparation of a major battle for Severodonetsk.

Eastern Ukraine has been the priority objective of Russian troops since their withdrawal from the vicinity of the Ukrainian capital at the end of March.

– Release “step by step” –

President Volodymyr Zelensky wanted to be reassuring: “The Armed Forces of Ukraine will liberate our land step by step. How long will it take? Only the real situation on the battlefield will give the answer to this question. We are trying to do it as soon as possible, that’s for sure”, he insisted in his daily video message in the evening.

In this context, the talks between Moscow and kyiv “are not moving forward”, the Kremlin ruled on Wednesday, which accused the Ukrainian negotiators of “total lack of will” to reach a political settlement.

The day before, the Ukrainian presidency had placed the responsibility for the suspension of the negotiations on Russia.

On the diplomatic level, the United States has reopened its embassy in kyiv, which was closed just before the Russian offensive.

At the same time, the Kremlin announced the expulsion of 34 French, 24 Italian and 27 Spanish diplomats, in retaliation for those of Russian diplomats shortly after the outbreak of the invasion. An act “strongly condemned” by Paris, described as “hostile” by Rome and “rejected” by Madrid.

But these retaliatory measures do not undermine the determination of Westerners to help Ukraine by delivering armaments and providing funds.

Mr Zelensky said he was “grateful” for the “exceptional new macro-financial assistance” offered by the European Union on Wednesday, amounting to “up to nine billion euros in 2022”.

Brussels has presented a 210 billion euro plan to free the EU “as quickly as possible” from Russian gas imports.

The finance ministers of the G7 (United States, Japan, Canada, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Germany), meeting Thursday and Friday in Germany, want in particular to complete a new round of table to cover the Ukrainian budget for the quarter in courses but also to fight against rising food prices.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Moscow not to hamper Ukrainian grain exports, and on Westerners to open access for Russian fertilizers to world markets.

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