EU hikes military aid for Ukraine as Sweden edges to NATO membership
Wangels (Germany) (AFP) - Europe pledged another half billion dollars in military support for Kyiv on Friday as Sweden followed Finland further down a path toward NATO membership, a goal Russia describes as a threat.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell promised Ukraine an extra 500 million euros ($520 million), bringing the bloc's total military aid to two billion euros.
"The recipe is clear –- more of the same," Borrell said at a gathering of leading democracies as the war entered its 12th week.
Borrell joined Group of Seven foreign ministers in the German sea resort of Wangels, where they conferred with counterparts from Ukraine and Moldova.
"It is very important at this time that we keep up the pressure on Vladimir Putin by supplying more weapons to Ukraine, by increasing the sanctions," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
President Putin invaded Russia's neighbour on February 24, unleashing a worldwide shock that has resounded especially in Sweden and Finland.
Traditionally neutral, the two Nordic countries are taking steps towards fast-track membership of NATO.
The Kremlin has warned Russia would deem further eastward expansion of the alliance a potential threat to its security.
A day after Finnish leaders recommended joining NATO "without delay," a subsidiary of Russian state energy firm Inter RAO said Russia would cut off electricity supplies to Finland from Saturday.
"This situation is exceptional and happened for the first time in over 20 years of our trading history," RAO Nordic said.
Finland's electricity operator said it could cope by importing power from Sweden and Norway.
In Stockholm, a review by parliamentary parties said Swedish NATO membership would have "a deterrent effect" on war in northern Europe.
In addition, "within the framework of current cooperation, there is no guarantee that Sweden would be helped if it were the target of a serious threat or attack," it said.
The report stopped short of offering a concrete recommendation, although expectations are high Sweden will emulate Finland when the government announces its decision in the coming days.
NATO says it would welcome both countries -- wealthy, established democracies with advanced militaries -- with open arms.
But a potential hurdle was thrown up by Turkey, a NATO member.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is part of NATO, said he did not have a "positive opinion" on their membership.
"Scandinavian countries are like a guesthouse for terror organisations," he said after Friday prayers in Istanbul.
Turkey has long accused Nordic countries, especially Sweden, of harbouring extremist Kurdish groups and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based preacher wanted over a failed coup in 2016.
The two countries said they would discuss the issue with Turkey on Saturday at NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Berlin.
- Russian failures -
Expectations of a lightning victory by Russia have sputtered out, raising speculation that the conflict could be protracted.
Russia abandoned early attempts to seize the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce defence by the Ukrainian army, supported by an influx of Western weaponry that has now reached billions of dollars.
Since then, Russia has focused its offensive in the eastern region of Donbas, where it has been supporting ethnic Russian-separatists.
Yet this too seems to be hampered by poor planning, high casualties and low morale, say experts.
"The expectation was that when they came back from Kyiv, they would launch all at once one of the Soviet-style offensives," said Mark Cancian of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think-tank.
"That didn't happen," he observed.
Western sources say up to 12,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in recent weeks, while Kyiv puts the number at 25,000.
Ukrainian armed forces chief Valery Zaluzhny said Russia had resorted to "massive use" of anti-ship cruise missiles against civilian infrastructure.
"One of the reasons for the enemy's transition to this tactic is the refusal to use aviation, which suffers vast losses," he said on Facebook.
In Washington, the Pentagon said the US and Russian defence chiefs had held their first conversation since February 18, although no "acute issues" were resolved in the call.
A Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian appeared in a court in Kyiv on Friday ahead of the first war crimes trial since the start of the offensive.
Vadim Shishimarin, 21, allegedly gunned down an unarmed 62-year-old civilian who had witnessed a carjacking by fleeing Russian troops.
He faces possible life imprisonment on charges of war crimes and premeditated murder.
The trial marks a significant moment in Ukraine, where accounts of murder, torture and rape by Russian forces are multiplying.
In eastern Ukraine, witnesses who spoke to AFP in the village of Stepanki, near the regional capital of Kharkiv, accused the Russians of shelling a home, killing several people.
They said six people who lived in the house were drinking tea in the courtyard when a tank approached.
"They started going into the house to hide," said Olga Karpenko, 52. The tank took aim and fired at them as they entered the house.
"Four people died, two were injured.My daughter died from a shrapnel wound in the back of her head," Karpenko said.
The UN Human Rights Council and International Criminal Court (ICC) have decided to launch their own probes into alleged atrocities.
More than six million people have fled Ukraine, more than half of them going to neighbouring Poland, the UN refugee agency says.
Economists meanwhile pored over the impact of a downturn in Russian gas supplies for Europe, where several countries, including economic giant Germany, are heavily dependent on Russian energy.
Russian energy giant Gazprom announced Thursday it would stop supplying gas via the Polish part of the Yamal-Europe pipeline following retaliatory sanctions that Moscow imposed on Western companies.
Gazprom also said gas transiting to Europe via a site in Ukraine had dropped by a third.
Last year, Russian imports accounted for nearly 40 percent of EU gas consumption.
Ole Hvalbye, a specialist with the Scandinavian bank SEB, said the loss through Ukraine amounted to around two percent of European gas consumption, while the Polish pipeline had carried little gas for several months.
The fall "does not scream crisis, but it is a wake-up call for what is to come," he said.
Finnish electricity network operator said would be able to make do without Russian electricity.