KYIV/WASHINGTON — Ukraine said Russia had started creating a military strike force aimed at President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih, while NATO moved closer to its most significant expansion in decades as the alliance responds to the invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. Senate and the Italian parliament both approved on Wednesday Finland and Sweden’s accession to the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Under NATO membership, which must be ratified by all 30 member states, an attack on one member is an attack against all.
“This historic vote sends an important signal of the sustained, bipartisan U.S. commitment to NATO, and to ensuring our Alliance is prepared to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, has repeatedly warned Finland and Sweden against joining NATO.
NATO’s 30 allies signed the accession protocol last month, allowing them to join the U.S.-led nuclear-armed alliance once its members ratify the decision.
Ratification could take up to a year.
Ukraine on Wednesday dismissed suggestions by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that Russia wanted a “negotiated solution” to the war and said any dialog would be contingent on a Russian ceasefire and withdrawal of its troops.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Thursday that Ukraine was seeking an opportunity to speak “directly” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help end the war.
“It’s a very powerful state. It’s a powerful economy … So (it) can politically, economically influence Russia. And China is (also a) permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” Zelenskiy told SCMP in an interview.
China’s foreign ministry did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.
On the battleground, Russian forces were engaged in considerable military activity, firing from tanks, barrel and rocket artillery in several parts of Ukraine, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said on Thursday.
Earlier, Ukraine said Russia had begun creating a strike group in the Kryvyi Rih direction and that it could be preparing new offensive operations in southern Ukraine.
The steel-producing city of Kryvyi Rih where Zelenskiy grew up lies around 50 km (30 miles) from the southern frontline.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, said on the Telegram app that three civilians had been killed in Bakhmut, Maryinka and Shevchenko and five wounded in the past 24 hours.
Governors of the Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk regions reported that their regions had been shelled overnight, and civilian infrastructure, houses had been damaged.
“The idea is to put military pressure on us in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk over the next few weeks…What is happening in the east is not what will determine the outcome of the war,” Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in an interview appearing on YouTube.
The whole point of the Russian offensive in the east is to force Ukraine to divert troops from the area that is truly a danger – Zaporizhzhia, Arestovych added.
Mayor Yevhen Yevtushenko of Nikopol, west of Zaporizhzhia in central Ukraine, said his city had been shelled overnight.
Russia in March was accused of firing shells dangerously close to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as its forces took it over in the first weeks of the invasion.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Moscow of using Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant as a “nuclear shield” in attacks on Ukrainian forces.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
Russia denies it targets civilians, but many towns and cities have been destroyed and thousands killed in the biggest conflict in Europe since World War Two. Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russian forces of war crimes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine in what he calls a “special military operation” to rid the country of fascists. Ukraine and the West said Putin launched an unprovoked “imperial” land grab.
The war has sparked a global energy and food crisis. Russia and Ukraine produce about one third of global wheat and Russia is the main energy supplier to Europe.
An agreement between Moscow and Kyiv, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, to allow safe passage of grain ships from Ukraine has been hailed as a rare diplomatic success in the war.
The first ship carrying Ukrainian grain since the war started passed through the Bosphorus Strait on Wednesday. The vessel, Razoni, was carrying 26,527 tonnes of corn to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine needed to export a minimum 10 million tonnes of grain to urgently help bring down its budget deficit which was running at $5 billion a month.
A senior Turkish official said three ships could leave Ukrainian ports daily following the Razoni’s departure, while Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said 17 more ships had been loaded with agricultural produce and were waiting to set sail.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Himani Sarkar; Editing by Michael Perry)