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Finns call Putin after Russia cuts electricity supply amid conflict with NATO

(AFP) — Finland on Saturday sought to assuage Moscow’s fears over its NATO bid as heavy fighting raged in eastern Ukraine, slowing a hoped-for Russian advance.

The wives and parents of Ukrainian fighters trapped in the bowels of a beleaguered steel mill in the south of the country have appealed desperately to China for their release.

And the G7 pledged to tighten the screws on the Kremlin further with new sanctions, pledging never to recognize the borders it was trying to redraw by destructive force.

One of Europe’s fiercest conflicts since World War II has seen more than six million people flee for their lives and, according to kyiv, caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to civilian infrastructure.

A senior Ukrainian general has predicted a turning point in the coming months and that the fighting could be over by the end of the year.

In Turin, Italy, a world away from the fighting, Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra is the bookmakers’ favorite to triumph at the world’s biggest live music event – the Eurovision Song Contest – amid an outpouring of popular support.

But even here, the war cast a shadow.

“We have a member of the group who joined the territorial defense of kyiv on the third day of the war,” singer Oleh Psiuk said.

“We are very worried about him and hope to see him safe once he returns.”

Phone call

Finland and Sweden are poised to abandon decades of military non-alignment to join NATO as a defense against feared new aggression from Russia.

Moscow warned Finland, with which it shares a 1,300 kilometer (800 mile) border, that it would take “reciprocal measures”.

Hours after Finland’s grid operator said Russia had cut power overnight, President Sauli Niinisto spoke with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“The conversation was direct and direct and it went without escalation,” Niinisto’s office said.

“Avoiding tensions was considered important. The phone call was initiated by Finland.

Putin, however, told him Finland’s NATO membership would be a “mistake”, insisting that Russia posed “no threat to Finland’s security”, the Kremlin said.

Finland’s candidacy for NATO membership is expected to be announced this weekend.

Turkey unhappy

Helsinki and Stockholm will first have to convince Turkey, a NATO member, on the sidelines of an informal meeting of the alliance’s foreign ministers in Berlin.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday accused the two countries of harboring “terrorist organizations”. Sweden and Finland have large Kurdish communities.

Ankara has notably regularly accused Stockholm of harboring members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization in the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States.

He was also angered by Sweden’s recognition as genocide of the massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917, and allegations of human rights abuses.

The two Nordic countries say they were unaware of the Turkish reluctance. Analysts told AFP that Erdogan could also play hardball to try to overturn Washington’s refusal to sell him fighter jets.

Withdrawal from Kharkiv

In Ukraine, the government and military claimed they were holding off a Russian assault in the eastern Donbas region, stifling Moscow’s attempt to annex the south and east.

Russia, which sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, has increasingly turned its attention to eastern Ukraine since late March after failing to take the capital kyiv.

Governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, said Ukrainian forces blocked Russian attempts to cross a river and encircle the city of Severodonetsk.

Defense and military intelligence officials in London and Washington both said Russian forces suffered heavy casualties as they tried to cross the river and failed to make any significant progress.

The Ukrainian General Staff said troops had successfully pushed Russian troops out of Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkiv in the northeast, a priority target for Moscow.

“The enemy’s main efforts are focused on the withdrawal of his units from the city of Kharkiv,” a spokesman said.

Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synegubov said in a video on Telegram that Ukrainian forces were counterattacking towards the northeastern town of Izyum.

Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said the coming months would be decisive for the course of the war.

“The breaking point will be in the second half of August,” he told British television Sky News.

“Most of the active combat actions will be completed by the end of this year.”

call from china

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday his troops would fight to retake all occupied and besieged territories, including the southern port city of Mariupol.

There, the last defenders of the city are entrenched in a maze of underground tunnels and bunkers in the vast steelworks of Azovstal under heavy bombardment.

“Very difficult negotiations are underway on the next stage of the evacuation mission – the rescue of the seriously injured, the doctors. That’s a lot of people,” Zelensky said.

The United Nations and the Red Cross helped evacuate women, children and the elderly from the factory earlier this month.

But local officials said some 600 fighters from the Ukrainian Azov Regiment were injured and needed to be taken for medical treatment.

In kyiv, five wives and a father of fighters trapped in the factory directly called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to intervene.

“China has a great influence on Russia and on Putin personally. We ask him to intervene,” said one man, Stavr Vyshniak.

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