Finland leaders formally back NATO bid; Sweden expected to seek membership: Live updates

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Finland leadership announced support Thursday for expedited NATO membership despite dire Kremlin warnings of “military and political repercussions.”

The decision by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin is strongly supported by lawmakers and citizens of Finland, though a few steps remain before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden is expected to decide on joining NATO in coming days.

“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security,” the leaders said in a joint statement. “As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.”

They said they hoped the application would be submitted in the next few days. Finland’s minister for European Affairs, Tytti Tuppurainen, said Finland’s parliament will vote on the matter early next week. Finland shares a 830-mile border with Russia.

“We want to defend our freedom and our equality,” Tuppurainen said. “This is not only about territories and borders. This war is also about values and ideology.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Moscow’s response will depend on how close NATO infrastructure draws to the Russian border.

“The expansion of NATO and the alliance’s military infrastructure approaching our borders do not make the world, and, what’s important, our Eurasian continent more stable and safe,” Peskov said. “This is unmistakable.”

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Latest developments:

►Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said growing Western arms supplies and Ukraine troop training have “increased the probability that an ongoing proxy war will turn into an open and direct conflict between NATO and Russia.”

►Russian forces and affiliated armed groups are responsible for most civilian deaths during the war in Ukraine, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said. She cited heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, and missile and airstrikes.

►A Ukrainian human rights activist says LGBTQ people in her country are “on the front line of resistance” against Russia’s invasion and many have joined the Ukrainian army. Olena Shevchenko told a European forum  via a video link that Ukraine’s LGBTQ support groups also have joined in offering humanitarian assistance.

Ukraine liberates towns near Kharkiv

Ukrainian counterattacks have been recapturing several towns and villages north of Kharkiv towards the Russian border, the British Defense Ministry said in an assessment Thursday. Russia’s prioritization of operations in the Donbas has left elements deployed in the Kharkiv region vulnerable to the mobile and “highly motivated”  Ukrainian counter-attacking force, the assessment says. Russia encircled Kharkiv in the initial stages of the conflict but has reportedly withdrawn units from the region to reorganize and replenish elsewhere following heavy losses, the assessment adds.

“The withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kharkiv Oblast is a tacit recognition of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population,” the assessment says.

War blamed for fast-rising prices in world’s poorest nations

The war in Ukraine has caused food, fuel and fertilizer prices to skyrocket to record levels in many parts of the world, leaving some of the world’s poorest countries vulnerable to food insecurity.

Ukraine and the Russian Federation provide about 30% of the world’s wheat and barley, one-fifth of its maize, and more than half of its sunflower oil. And Russia is the world’s top natural gas exporter and second-largest oil exporter. 

According to the United Nation’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, small-scale farmers can’t keep up with worldwide price hikes caused by the war, leaving them unable to pay for machine fuel and fertilizer.

Parts of Africa, the Near East and Central Asia have been hit the hardest by price shocks, the UN said. In Somalia, many farmers rely on irrigation powered by diesel engines: high fuel prices compounded with drought have experts worried about famine.

Russia still wants to take Kyiv, Ukrainian general warns

Russia still has plans to take control of Ukraine’s capital, a Ukrainian general says. Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov said at a briefing that Russian troops will try to storm Kyiv and have plans to take control over the southern Mykolaiv and Odesa regions to build a land corridor to Moldova, home to the Transnistria separatist region.

Hromov also said Russia will try to hold sham elections in captured Ukrainian territories to annex them into Russia. Russian-appointed authorities have already announced plans to seek annexation in the southern Ukraine city of Kherson.

Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to capture the capital in the early days of the invasion, but Russian troops have since refocused on the hotly contested eastern Donbas region.

Contributing:Deirdre Shesgreen and Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY; The Associated Press