Further Russian retreat seen in eastern Ukraine, another setback for Putin

KRAKOW, Poland — Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin faced a series of setbacks during the invasion of Ukraine on Monday, when his faltering army seemed forced to further narrow its targets and an emboldened NATO practiced war games with the alliance’s two newest candidates. at the door of his country.

To make matters worse for Putin, his own allies in Russia’s NATO counterpart failed to rally around him at a summit in Moscow, leading to the view of an increasingly isolated Kremlin completely was shown on Russian state television.

And in what would be a shift in position, Mr Putin seemed to be softening his strong objections to NATO membership by Finland and Sweden, who took part in their military exercises in the Baltics on Monday. Just last week, Mr Putin had warned the two Scandinavian countries that joining NATO would be a mistake.

Putin’s image on his back foot was further fueled by two of the biggest names in global business – McDonald’s and Renault – announcing their departure from Russia, contributing to the company exits that, combined with Western sanctions, are causing a serious setbacks for the country’s economy.

One of the few bright spots for Mr Putin was the Ukrainian army’s decision late Monday to end resistance from tenacious fighters at the Azovstal steel plant in the southeastern port of Mariupol, which had been under Russian siege for weeks. .

With no chance, wounded and starving, the fighters had become heroes to many Ukrainians, but were evacuated in what amounted to a surrender. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said the decision was intended “to save the lives of our boys”.

But Mr Putin still faced what could be NATO’s largest expansion in decades.

France, Denmark, Norway and Iceland were among NATO members on Monday who said they would welcome Sweden and Finland.

However, their application may take some time.

Turkey, which accused the two applicants of harboring anti-Turkish Kurdish extremists, has held up the opportunity to leverage its leverage for concessions before approving their membership, which requires approval from all 30 NATO countries. State Secretary Antony J. Blinken has expressed confidence that “we will reach consensus”.

Taken together, Monday’s developments created one of the stark contrasts to date between today’s Russia and February 24, as columns of Russian tanks and tens of thousands of its soldiers poured into Ukraine from the east, north and south, in what appeared to be a at the time seemed an unstoppable juggernaut that could end Ukraine’s independence as a sovereign country.

It soon became apparent that, despite Russia’s destructive and indiscriminate aerial bombardment, its vaunted armed forces suffered major battlefield deficiencies and suffered heavy casualties, and that Ukraine’s outnumbered defenders were driving them back in many places, aiding by a deluge of Western military support.

Within weeks, the Russians were forced to withdraw from the Kiev area to the north and refocus their invasion on capturing the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces that make up the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists fighting since 2014.

But Russia’s will to take Donbas, despite initial success, now also appears to be stumbling, military analysts said. Apart from Mariupol, the Russians have not yet captured an important city there.

In the past week, the Russians withdrew from the suburbs of the northeastern city of Kharkiv, less than 40 miles from the Russian border. As a symbol of their recent battlefield successes, a small number of Ukrainian troops photographed themselves at the border on Monday, after dodging Russian forces nearby.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based group, said in its latest assessment that Russian troops had likely abandoned their goal of encircling tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas and halted their own attempt to take Donetsk instead. aimed at capturing Luhansk.

In what appeared to be a further setback, the institute also said Russia likely ran out of combat-ready reservists, forcing it to integrate troops from private military companies and militias into its regular army.

Western military analysts have repeatedly warned that Russia remains by far the largest power and that the war could last for months or years. Russia still controls a portion of southern Ukraine taken early in the invasion and has blocked ports on the Black Sea, choking Ukraine’s economic lifeline.

But Russia’s miscalculations and growing isolation from the war have overshadowed its achievements.

One of the most visible signs of resistance to Russia has been the large-scale NATO exercises in Estonia, the former Soviet republic — the very kind of military display the Kremlin sees as a threat. Although the exercises had been planned for a long time, their importance was increased by the participation of Finland and Sweden and by the host of the exercises, Estonia, which borders Russia.

For Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Ukraine’s struggle cannot end with Russia’s reconciliation.

“I see a solution only as a military victory that could put an end to this once and for all, and also to punish the aggressor for what he has done,” Ms Kallas said in an interview with The New York Times. Otherwise, she said, “we’ll go back to where we started.”

The NATO exercise, called Hedgehog, was one of the largest in Estonia since it gained independence in 1991, with 15,000 personnel from 14 countries.

In Moscow, where Mr Putin called a meeting on Russia’s response to NATO – the six-member Collective Security Treaty Organization – only one member, Belarus, spoke out in support of him on Ukraine.

It would be a celebratory gathering to commemorate the founding of the group 30 years ago. But it turned out to be a demonstration of dissension among some of Mr Putin’s friendly neighbors.

Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko, who was the first to speak in the televised portion of the summit, criticized other members for not providing sufficient support to Russia and Belarus despite Western sanctions.

He pointed to the alliance’s decision to send troops to Kazakhstan in January to protect the government from protests, but claimed it had left Russia largely alone over Ukraine.

“Are we now just as connected by bonds of solidarity and support?” he asked, after mentioning the alliance’s support for the Kazakh government. “I may be wrong, but as recent events have shown, the answer seems to be no.”

Kazakhstan has said it would not help Russia evade international sanctions. In a United Nations vote on March 2 condemning the invasion of Ukraine, Belarus was the only post-Soviet country to side with Russia.

“Look at how monolithic the European Union votes and acts,” said Mr Lukashenko at Monday’s summit, sitting at a round table with the other leaders. “When we’re separated, we’re just crushed and torn apart.”

As if to confirm Mr Lukashenko’s point, the leaders of the other members – Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – did not mention Ukraine in their televised comments.

The invasion of Ukraine has put those countries in a difficult position. They all have close economic and military ties to Russia, but Mr Putin’s invasion of a sovereign neighbor sets an ominous precedent for countries looking to diversify their foreign policy beyond Moscow.

Speaking at the summit, Mr Putin again tried to justify his invasion by falsely claiming that “neo-Nazism has long been rampant in Ukraine”. But he took a more measured tone when discussing Sweden and Finland’s likely accession to NATO — the latest evidence that Mr Putin appears to be trying to limit an escalation of his conflict with the West for now.

“Russia, I want to let you know, ladies and gentlemen, has no problem with these states,” said Mr Putin, adding that NATO’s enlargement to Sweden and Finland “does not pose a direct threat to us”.

Still, he ruled out unspecified retaliation if Finland and Sweden expand their “military infrastructure” as NATO members, warning that “we’ll look at what that will be based on the threats being created.”

Marc Santora reported from Krakow, Poland, Anton Troianovski and Rick Gladstone from New York, and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London. Reporting was contributed by Steven Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia, Andrew E. Kramer and Valerie Hopkins from Kiev, Ukraine, Eric Schmitt from Washington, Cassandra Vinograd from London, Lauren Hirsch from New York, Liz Alderman from Paris and Neil MacFarquhar and Safak Timur from istanbul.

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