KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Europe pushed Monday to sharpen and expand its response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with Sweden poised to follow Finland in seeking membership of NATO and European Union officials working to rescue proposed sanctions that would target Russian oil exports helping the Kremlin finance its war.
On the ground, Russia saw more setbacks in its offensive in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian defenders are fighting desperately against attempted Russian advances and even successfully rolling back the front lines in some areas.
In a small but symbolic boost for Ukrainian morale, a patrol of soldiers recorded triumphant video of their push right up to the Russian border in the region of Kharkiv. Already, Ukrainian forces have pushed Russian troops back from the region's capital, making it harder for them to hit the battered city with artillery.
As fighting raged, international efforts to respond to Russia's aggression continued to pick up pace. The Swedish government is expected to announce its intention to seek NATO membership later Monday — as its neighbor Finland has done. Those are seismic developments for the Nordic countries that have traditionally positioned themselves as militarily “nonaligned.”
An enlargement of NATO to include Sweden and Finland would be a serious blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has called the alliance’s post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe a threat and cited it as a reason for attacking Ukraine. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the membership process for both Finland and Sweden could be very quick — though member Turkey has cast doubts over the move.
In Brussels, EU officials worked to overcome opposition from a small group of countries led by Hungary to a proposed embargo on imports of Russian oil. Hungary is one of a number of landlocked countries that are highly dependent on Russian oil, along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bulgaria also has reservations.
“We will do our best in order to deblock the situation," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. " I cannot ensure that it is going to happen because positions are quite strong.”
Weapons from NATO countries to Ukraine and western sanctions against Russia have helped the outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian forces bog down the Russian advance — and even turn it back in places.
Stoltenberg, the NATO chief, said Sunday the war “is not going as Moscow had planned."
“Ukraine can win this war,” he said, adding that NATO must continue to offer military support to Kyiv.
Since Russia's failure to overrun Kyiv, the capital, in the early stages of its Feb. 24 invasion, much of the fighting has shifted to the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
Determining a full picture of the unfolding battle there is difficult. Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around, and reporting is restricted by Ukraine and the Moscow-backed separatists it has been fighting in the Donbas for eight years.
Still, Ukrainian forces are grinding down the Russians, and the two sides have been battling village-by-village.
A Ukrainian patrol in the Kharkiv region, where Russian troops have been pushed back by a counteroffensive, reached the Russian border and made a victorious video there addressed to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The video posted Sunday on Facebook by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense shows a dozen fighters around a post covered with blue and yellow, Ukraine’s colors. It was not clear exactly where the video was shot.
One soldier said the unit went “to the dividing line with the Russian Federation, the occupying country. Mr. President, we have reached it. We are here.” Other fighters made victory signs and raised their fists.
Along another section of the frontier with Russia, Ukrainian border guards said they defeated a Russian attempt Monday morning to send troops into the northern Sumy region. The border guard service said Russian forces deployed mortars, grenade launchers and machine guns in an attempt to cover a “sabotage and reconnaissance group” crossing the border from Russia.
The border guard service said its officers returned fire and forced the Russian group to retreat back into Russia. The area is largely rural and hasn’t seen intense fighting in more than a month. There was no immediate word from Russia.
In the Donbas, the Ukrainian military said that Russian forces targeted civilian and military sites in multiple towns.
Russia troops continued air and artillery strikes around the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, the last holdout of several hundred Ukrainian forces in the strategically important city, the Ukrainian General Staff said.
In an online news conference, many wives of the besieged soldiers urged the international community to help gain the release of “the entire garrison,” which is suffering from a dire lack of food, water and medicine.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said his country had offered to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians by ship from Azovstal, the official state broadcaster TRT said.
Britain's Defense Ministry said Monday that Belarus was deploying special operations forces along its border with Ukraine and air defense, artillery and missile units to training ranges in the west of the country. Belarus’ forces have not been directly involved in the conflict, though its territory was used as a staging ground for the invasion.
But the presence of Belarusian troops near the border may keep Ukrainian troops pinned down there, preventing them from moving to support the counteroffensive in the Donbas.
Despite the fighting in the wider Kharkiv region and the threat of Russian missile attacks, many people were returning home to Kharkiv and other cities around Ukraine, Anna Malyar, deputy head of the Ministry of Defense, said.
Refugees were returning not just because of optimism that the war might ebb.
“Living somewhere just like that, not working, paying for housing, eating ... they are forced to return for financial reasons,” Malyar said in remarks carried by the RBK-Ukraine news agency.
McQuillan reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa and other AP staffers around the world contributed to this report.