Ukraine was preparing on Monday for a new Russian push in the eastern Donbas region, as Kiev said its army’s counterattack around Kharkiv gained momentum.
Since it failed to seize the capital at the start of the invasion in late February, control of the Donbas has become one of Moscow’s primary objectives, but Western intelligence has predicted that its campaign will stall amid heavy casualties and fierce resistance.
“We are preparing for new attempts by Russia to attack in Donbas, to somehow intensify its movement in southern Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his night speech.
“The occupiers still do not want to admit that they are in a bind and their so-called ‘special operation’ has already failed,” he added.
Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich told local television that Russian troops had been transferred to the Donbas following the withdrawal from Kharkiv following the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Kiev troops have made so much progress in the northern region that they have almost reached the border with Russia, according to Interior Ministry adviser Vadim Denisenko, although air raid sirens still sounded in the city of Kharkiv at the beginning of Monday.
Arestovich said the retreating Russian forces were being sent to Lugansk.
“Their job is to take Severodonetsk,” he said. “Well, something’s not working for you.”
Severodonetsk is the easternmost city still held by Ukraine and its fall would guarantee the Kremlin de facto control of Lugansk, one of the two regions – along with Donetsk – that make up Donbas.
But Russia’s attempt to cross a river to surround it had been repulsed with heavy equipment losses, according to Lugansk Governor Sergiy Gaiday.
To further deter the attack, the Russian-occupied railway bridges leading to Severodonetsk were blown up, the Ukrainian military said on its Facebook page at the end of Sunday, posting a video of a huge explosion taken from the high.
For its part, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had hit four artillery ammunition depots in nearby Donetsk.
The airstrikes also destroyed two missile and radar launch systems, while 15 Ukrainian drones were shot down around Donetsk and Lugansk, he added.
But UK defense chiefs said the Russian offensive in Donbas had “lost momentum”.
The demoralized Russian troops had failed to make substantial gains and Moscow’s battle plan was “significantly overdue,” British intelligence said.
He added that Russia may have lost a third of its ground combat forces in February and was “unlikely to drastically accelerate” its advance over the next 30 days.
Ukrainian commanders say they expect a turnaround in their favor by August, but Western powers have warned that the conflict will turn into a war of attrition that will extend into next year.
On Sunday, NATO pledged indefinite military aid to Kiev, with Germany’s Annalena Baerbock pledging it “for as long as Ukraine needs.”
“Ukraine can win this war,” added NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
The show of support came when Finland confirmed that it would run to join the alliance, eliminating decades of military non-alignment.
READ ALSO: Finland announces NATO’s “historic” offer
A few hours after Finland’s announcement, the Swedish ruling party also said it was in favor of membership, in another notable turn of public and political opinion.
“The best thing for Sweden’s security is that we apply for membership now and we do it with Finland,” said Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.
Stoltenberg said the alliance will seek to provide both countries with interim security guarantees when processing their applications, including possibly increasing troops in the region.
In Berlin, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he felt “almost generalized and very strong support” for the offers, despite Turkey’s fears.
Ankara accused both Sweden and Finland of hosting Kurdish extremists, but Stoltenberg said he was not blocking their membership and was confident of finding common ground.
Moscow has repeatedly warned both countries of the consequences if they join the alliance, insisting that the Nordic nations have nothing to fear from Russia.
Apparently, it has pulled the plug on electricity supplies to Finland, with which it shares a 1,300-kilometer border.
On the ground in Ukraine, fierce fighting continued across the country.
In Lviv on Sunday, regional governor Maksym Kozytsky said four Russian missiles hit military infrastructure near the Polish border, the first time the city has been hit since May 3.
No casualties were reported, and the Ukrainian military claimed to have destroyed two cruise missiles over the region.
In the south, the mayor of the southern city of Mykolaiv warned residents that explosions had been heard on Monday.
In the southeastern city of Mariupol, some 600 Ukrainian soldiers were holed up in underground tunnels and bunkers under a steel mill, fighting a rearguard battle.
In his speech, Zelensky said that “very complicated and delicate negotiations to save our people” in the vast Azovstal plant continued on a daily basis.
The soldiers’ families have appealed to China to intervene to ensure the release of the dead and wounded.
Earlier this month, the United Nations and the Red Cross helped evacuate women, children and the elderly from their refugee establishment.
Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, said on Telegram that a “huge convoy” of 500-1,000 cars has arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia.