Fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, but Eurovision victory boosts morale

Ukrainian forces were battling a fierce Russian attack in the east of the country on Sunday after a Eurovision Song Contest victory gave the country a much-needed morale boost.

President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Saturday that the war in his country could trigger global food shortages, adding that the situation in Ukraine’s Donbass was “very difficult”.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 24, has increasingly turned its attention to the east of the country since late March, after failing to take the capital kyiv.

Western analysts believe President Vladimir Putin intends to annex southern and eastern Ukraine in the coming months, but his troops appear to be meeting stiff resistance.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is increasingly shifting the balance of power in Europe, with Finland and Sweden ready to abandon decades of military non-alignment to join NATO as a defense against feared new aggression from Moscow .

Helsinki is expected to officially announce its application for membership on Sunday.

But as a conflict that displaced millions dragged into its third month, Ukrainians were offered a much-needed boost of optimism when a rap lullaby combining modern folk and hip-hop beats won the Eurovision contest.

‘Stefania’, which beat out a host of over-the-top acts at the quirky annual music event, was written by frontman Oleh Psiuk as a tribute to his pre-war mother – but its nostalgic lyrics took on an outsized meaning because of the conflict.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azóvstal right now,” Psiuk said in English from the stage, referring to the port city’s underground steelworks where Ukrainian soldiers are surrounded by Russian forces.

There was also optimism from kyiv’s military intelligence chief, who told Sky News in the UK on Saturday that the war could reach a “breaking point” in August and end in defeat for Russia before the end of the year.

Major General Kyrylo Budanov told the news network he was “optimistic” about the current trajectory of the conflict.

“Heavy Fighting”

On the ground, the governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, said Ukrainian forces had blocked Russian attempts to cross a river and encircle the city of Severodonetsk.

“There is heavy fighting on the border with the Donetsk region,” Gaidai said, noting heavy Russian losses of equipment and personnel.

“Interceptions [of phone calls]we understand that a set [Russian] battalion refused to attack because they see what is happening.”

Aerial footage showed dozens of destroyed armored vehicles on the river bank and destroyed pontoon bridges.

British military intelligence also said Russian forces suffered heavy casualties as they attempted to cross the river.

The highly risky maneuver reflects “the pressure Russian commanders are under to push forward their operations in eastern Ukraine”, he added.

But forces in Moscow “failed to make significant progress despite the concentration of forces in this area”, he said.

In Washington, a senior US defense official said most of the activity was now taking place in the Donbass region.

Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synegubov said in a video on Telegram that Ukrainian forces were counterattacking towards the northeastern town of Izium.

And the Ukrainian general staff said the troops managed to push Russian troops out of Kharkiv, a priority target for Moscow.

“The enemy’s main efforts are focused on the withdrawal of his units from the city of Kharkiv,” a spokesman said.

On Friday, Zelensky said his troops would fight to retake all occupied and besieged territories, including the devastated port city of Mariupol.

There, the last defenders of the city are entrenched in a maze of underground tunnels and bunkers in the vast steelworks of Azovstal under heavy bombardment.

The United Nations and the Red Cross helped evacuate women, children and the elderly from the whey factory they were sheltering earlier this month.

Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the city’s mayor, said on Telegram that a “huge convoy” of 500 to a thousand cars had arrived in the city of Zaporizhia.

“Finally, we are waiting for our relatives from Mariupol at home,” he said.

Balance of power

Sweden and Finland are set to join NATO, whose grid operator said Russia cut off electricity supplies overnight.

Finnish officials said electricity supplied by Sweden had compensated for the losses.

Ahead of talks with NATO members in Berlin, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he was “convinced that in the end we will find a solution and that Finland [and] Sweden will become a member of NATO.”

Earlier, in a phone call initiated by Helsinki, President Sauli Niinisto had a “direct and candid” conversation with Putin.

“Avoiding tensions was considered important,” Niinisto’s office said.

Putin told him, however, that Finland’s NATO membership would be a “mistake”, insisting that Russia posed “no threat to Finland’s security”, the Kremlin said.

Ukrainian Zelensky also met with a delegation of senior US lawmakers on Saturday, with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell reaffirming Washington’s support for the country.

“Ukrainians are fighting bravely against a deranged invader and have already succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of skeptics,” McConnell said in a statement.

“They are willing and determined to keep fighting for the win.”

Food crisis

The war also had a profound impact on the global economy, with wheat prices soaring following the invasion.

“Now support for Ukraine – and especially with weapons – means working to prevent global starvation,” Zelensky said in his speech.

“The sooner we liberate our land and ensure Ukraine’s security, the sooner the normal state of the food market can be restored,” he said.

Prior to the invasion, Ukraine exported 4.5 million tonnes of agricultural products per month through its ports – 12% of the planet’s wheat, 15% of its corn and half of its sunflower oil.

But with the ports of Odessa, Chornomorsk and others cut off from the world by Russian warships, supplies can only flow through congested and much less efficient land routes.

India had previously said it was ready to help fill some of the supply shortages caused by the war.

But on Saturday the country banned wheat exports without government approval, drawing strong criticism from G7 agriculture ministers meeting in Germany, who said such moves would “aggravate the crisis”.

G7 ministers urged countries not to take restrictive measures that could add pressure to commodity markets.

They “spoke out against stopping exports and also called for keeping markets open,” said German Agriculture Minister Cem Ozdemir, whose country holds the rotating chairmanship of the group.

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