- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Finland and Sweden signaled Wednesday that they may announce plans to apply to join NATO within a matter of weeks, dealing a major blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes of weakening the military alliance and offering further evidence that reported atrocities committed by Mr. Putin’s troops in Ukraine have only hardened anti-Russian sentiment across the West.

The twin developments in Helsinki and Stockholm are in direct response to Mr. Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and the actions of Russian troops during the nearly 2-month-old conflict there. President Biden has described the assault as “genocide” against the Ukrainian people. Mr. Biden first used the term Tuesday, drawing praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He described the comments as the “true words of a true leader.”

“Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil. We are grateful for U.S. assistance provided so far and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities,” Mr. Zelenskyy tweeted Wednesday, just hours before he and Mr. Biden held a nearly hourlong phone call.

During that call, Mr. Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart that the U.S. would provide another $800 million in weapons, ammunition and other security aid to Ukraine as it looks to counter a major Russian military offensive against the country’s eastern Donbas region. The security package specifically includes “new capabilities tailored to the wider assault we expect Russia to launch in eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said in a statement after his conversation with Mr. Zelenskyy.

Pentagon officials said howitzers and Russian-made helicopters originally intended for Afghanistan are among the surplus military stock Mr. Biden has approved for Kyiv. Although U.S. and NATO officials have ruled out sending troops to help fight Russia, the Biden administration has provided $3.2 billion to Ukraine, including $2.6 billion since Mr. Putin ordered the invasion on Feb. 24.

Also on the list of weaponry heading for Ukraine are 40,000 artillery shells, 500 Javelin anti-tank missiles, 10 counterartillery radar systems and 200 armored personnel carriers, among other items. Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the list is “designed to help Ukraine in the fight they are in right now and the fight they will be in in the coming days.”

SEE ALSO: Ukraine says its missile strikes hit a Russian warship in the Black Sea

Moscow reacted with anger to Mr. Biden’s “genocide” comment. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the comment “unacceptable.” A day earlier, Mr. Putin denied that his forces had engaged in genocide or committed war crimes. He said photos and videos of Ukrainian civilians bound and shot in the head in the city of Bucha were fake.

Allies have accused Russian forces of war crimes, and U.S. officials say they are gathering evidence of Russian attacks on civilians and atrocities committed by invading forces. During a visit to Iowa on Tuesday, Mr. Biden insisted he had not misspoken in levying the genocide charge.

“I called it genocide because it’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out even the idea of being Ukrainian. The evidence is mounting,” Mr. Biden told reporters.

The grim images from Ukrainian towns abandoned by retreating Russian forces have shocked the world and fueled calls to bring Mr. Putin and other Russian leaders to account. A report commissioned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe published Wednesday found “clear patterns of [international law] violations by the Russian forces in their conduct of hostilities.”

U.S. officials declined to say whether they were preparing a formal investigation to back up Mr. Biden’s genocide charge, which appeared to be dividing U.S. allies as well. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa that he thought it was “right” that a growing number of people, the U.S. president included, are raising the genocide charge against Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron pointedly declined to endorse Mr. Biden’s words.

“I want to try as much as possible to continue to be able to stop this war and to rebuild peace,” Mr. Macron said Wednesday. “I’m not sure that verbal escalations serve this cause.”

SEE ALSO: Biden pledges $800M in military aid to Ukraine

NATO expansion

Beyond accusations of war crimes and genocide, it is becoming clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will spark longer-term geopolitical ramifications.

The prospect of Finland, a nation that shares an 833-mile border and a long, tangled history with Moscow, joining NATO would represent a major expansion of the alliance and would dramatically deepen its footprint on Russia’s doorstep. “Finlandization,” in fact, became a catchword during the Cold War for a small nation carefully moderating its security policies to prevent angering a larger, hostile neighbor.

With domestic public opinion shifting rapidly against Russia, Finnish leaders say they will make a decision on NATO membership well before the alliance’s June summit in Madrid. They also made clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the driving force behind the accelerated timeline to take a step Finnish leaders had long resisted.

“The war started by Russia endangers security and stability in [all of] Europe,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said as the government presented a report on the changes to Finland’s security environment.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine will have a long-lasting impact on our own security environment. Trust in Russia has plummeted,” he said.

Meanwhile, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country has initiated a security review that is expected to be completed by May 31. She said her country would have “a very close dialogue and have a very straightforward and honest discussion” with Finland as each country weighs NATO membership.

Moscow has made no secret of its desire to keep Finland out of NATO and has broadly accused the Western military alliance of sparking the conflict in Ukraine by expanding inexorably eastward in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Russia was too weak to prevent it.

“We regard the Finnish government’s commitment to a military non-alignment policy as an important factor in ensuring security and stability in northern Europe,” the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a Twitter post in February. “Finland’s accession to [NATO] would have serious military and political repercussions.”

On the battlefield, Russian forces continued to redeploy and reinforce in the east and south of Ukraine after a blitz targeting Kyiv and other big cities in the north ended in a humiliating retreat. U.S. officials say Moscow’s new plan is to take and seize territory in the Donbas region close to the eastern border with Russia.

Russia claimed something of a victory Wednesday in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, the scene of some of the greatest suffering and destruction of the war. Russian officials said more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines surrendered at a metals factory in the city. Those claims weren’t immediately verified, but the BBC reported that one Ukrainian service member in Mariupol called his mother and said his unit was out of food, ammunition and other supplies and would soon surrender.

Russian state television broadcast footage purportedly showing the Ukrainian service members exiting the factory and surrendering.

A surrender could mark a psychological blow to Ukrainian defense forces, which thus far have prevented Russian troops from capturing any major city and have dominated the online narrative of the conflict.

Ukrainian officials in Odesa said their forces had damaged a Russian warship in the Black Sea. That claim also could not be independently verified.

The Pentagon’s Mr. Kirby said Ukrainian officials have asked in particular for artillery in anticipation of the coming battles in the Donbas. Long before the Russian invasion, Ukrainian and pro-Moscow separatist groups battled to a stalemate in an eight-year civil war in the region, with both sides deeply dug in.

“They will be facing Russian forces that are familiar with the territory in that part of Ukraine,” Mr. Kirby said. “They have been fighting there for years. We tailored this list specifically to meet the needs that they have asked for.”

With Kyiv seemingly safe, at least for the moment, the presidents of Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia visited the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday and met with Mr. Zelenskyy. The four nations on the front lines of the clash with Russia have been among the strongest voices inside NATO for a tougher, more aggressive stand against the Kremlin.

President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania visited a battlefield in Dmytrivka, a town east of Kyiv, and closely examined a number of Russian tanks destroyed by Ukrainian fighters.

“Heroism, love of freedom, and homeland always triumph over savagery,” Mr. Nauseda said in a Twitter message. “Ukraine needs weapons for their fight here and now.”

• Jeff Mordock, Tom Howell Jr. and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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