By The Associated Press
ZAGREB, Croatia — President Zoran Milanovic of Croatia wants his country to follow Turkey’s example by trying to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.
Milanovic is in a bitter verbal dispute with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic over a number of issues, including whether to support the NATO applications Sweden and Finland submitted on Wednesday.
Before Croatia’s parliament ratifies NATO membership for the two Nordic nations, Milanovic wants a change of neighboring Bosnia’s electoral law that would make it easer for Bosnian Croats to get their representatives elected to leadership positions.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated Wednesday that NATO’s enlargement would depend on Finland and Sweden showing respect to Turkish sensitivities concerning terrorism.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Ukraine hopes to swap steel mill fighters for Russian POWs
— Russian soldier pleads guilty at Ukraine war crimes trial
— Will Turkey upend NATO expansion? US officials seek clarity
— NATO chief hails ‘historic moment’ as Finland, Sweden apply
— In Ukraine, limbs lost and lives devastated in an instant
— Europe’s push to cut Russian gas faces a race against winter
— Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Finland and Sweden’s decision to seek membership in NATO “historic” and said he would “strongly support” the applications.
Biden is set to meet Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in Washington on Thursday to discuss their NATO memberships bids and the situation in Ukraine.
“Finland and Sweden are longtime, stalwart partners of the United States,” Biden said in a statement. “By joining NATO, they will further strengthen our defense cooperation and benefit the entire Transatlantic Alliance.”
BRUSSELS — The European Union on Wednesday urged member countries to quickly replenish their depleted stocks of ammunition and military equipment, offering financial incentives to those willing to work together to replace materiel sent to Ukraine.
Many of the EU’s 27 members have sent equipment to help Ukrainian troops. At first it was mostly ammunition, but now includes portable missiles to destroy warplanes and tanks, as well as heavier equipment.
The EU’s executive branch is offering a fund of 500 million euros ($526 million) over two years to countries willing to work in groups of at least three to replenish their stocks. Officials declined to say, for security reasons, what shortages nations have.
The commission is also ready to provide incentives to encourage countries to replace their Soviet-era stocks of battle tanks, heavy artillery and armored vehicles. Some have already been supplying these to Ukraine, whose troops are trained to use them.
MOSCOW — Russia says it told Sweden on Wednesday that its response to the Nordic nation joining NATO will be based on how the alliance deploys its military strength in the future.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said officials met with Swedish Ambassador Malena Mard at her request and that she notified Moscow about Sweden’s NATO ambitions.
The Foreign Ministry said it responded that “the choice of ways to ensure national security is the sovereign right of each state, but together with that, it should not create threats to the security of other countries.”
The ministry added that Moscow’s reaction would depend on NATO weapons deployments to Sweden.
Russia’s “specific reaction and possible responsive measures, including the military-technical side, will to a large extent depend on the real consequences of the integration of Sweden into the North Atlantic Alliance, including the deployment on Swedish territory of foreign military bases and offensive weapons systems,” the ministry said.
ANKARA, Turkey — A pro-government Turkish newspaper says Turkey has drawn up a list of 10 demands it will reportedly ask Sweden and Finland to meet before it can approve their NATO membership.
The list published by Sabah newspaper on Wednesday calls on the two countries to stop any financial support to groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party as well as to Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Ankara views as extensions of the banned group. There are also demands that these countries halt contacts with members of the Syrian Kurdish group.
Sabah said Turkey furthermore wants the two countries to “expedite” extradition proceedings for suspects wanted by Turkey on terror charges.
The list also includes a demand that Sweden clamps down on what Sabah called a “disinformation” campaign against Turkey led by followers of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara claims was behind a coup attempt in 2016. Many followers of the Gulen movement have fled to Sweden.
PRAGUE — Czech Defense Minister Jana Cernochova says Germany will donate 15 Leopard 2 A4 tanks to the Czech armed forces.
Cernochova says she has struck a deal with her German counterpart Christine Lambert. She says the move shows Germany’s appreciation of her country’s military help to Ukraine facing Russia’s aggression.
The Czechs have given Ukraine unspecified Soviet-era heavy weapons worth at least $130 million.
Cernochova said Wednesday that the tank deal is “great news for the Czech army.”
She said the tanks are ready for combat and the deal includes spare parts and ammunition. They should be delivered this year.
The minister also says the Czechs have opened talks with Germany about purchasing up to 50 more new Leopard A7+ tanks.
PARIS — The French Foreign Ministry has condemned Moscow’s decision to expel 34 French diplomats in retaliation for the April expulsion of Russians who Paris claims were secret agents “working against (French) security interests.”
The Foreign Ministry says that the French ordered expelled by Moscow are real diplomats. It said the Russian decision Wednesday “has no legitimate basis” and “we can only deplore it.”
Russia said it was responding to “the provocative and utterly baseless decision of French authorities” last month to expel 41 Russians, part of a wave of expulsions by EU nations.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The Czech Republic’s government has unanimously approved NATO membership for Finland and Sweden — just hours after the two countries submitted their requests.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala said Wednesday he welcomes the nations’ decisions to join the alliance. He added that their militaries fully meet all necessary accession criteria.
The accession protocol still needs to be ratified by both chambers of Czech Parliament, which is expected to happen soon. Fiala said he doesn’t anticipate any obstacles, as governing parties hold the majority in both chambers of parliament.
WARSAW, Poland — Poland is launching a new form of military service this month amid security concerns because of the war in neighboring Ukraine.
The Polish military said Wednesday that volunteers will be able to provide a year’s paid service that can be turned into long-term or professional service.
Those who enter the program will go through 28-day training with a military unit, and then 11 months of service. They will be accommodated with their unit or outside, and will receive a pre-tax monthly pay of some 4,500 zlotys ($1,000).
It was not immediately clear how much interest the offer could draw. The first volunteers will be able to enlist from May 21.
A NATO member since 1999, Poland has some 111,500 professional soldiers and 32,000 volunteer territorial troops.
BERLIN — Germany says it remains confident that Sweden and Finland will be able to join NATO, despite alliance member Turkey’s current objections.
Government spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that Germany is “actively working” to resolve the issues raised by Turkey, but declined to elaborate.
“The German government remains confident that all NATO members will support this accession and that it can be achieved quickly,” she said.
Hoffmann said the German Cabinet on Wednesday backed the accession protocol. Parliamentary approval is still required, but that is all but assured in Germany.
Hoffmann added that Germany would also support NATO membership for Austria and Ireland, should those neutral countries decide to join the military alliance.
KYIV, Ukraine — A Russian soldier facing the first war crimes trial since the start of the war has pleaded guilty to charges of killing a Ukrainian civilian.
Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin pleaded guilty to the charges during his trial in Kyiv on Wednesday. The 21-year-old soldier could get life in prison if convicted of shooting a Ukrainian man in the head through an open car window in a village in the northeastern Sumy region on Feb. 28, four days into the invasion.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova has previously said her office was readying war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers for offenses including bombing civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, rape and looting.
It was not immediately clear how many of the suspects are in Ukrainian hands and how many could be tried in absentia.
MOSCOW — Russia says it is expelling 27 Spanish diplomats after announcing the expulsion of dozens of diplomats from France and Italy.
Moscow said on Wednesday the move is in response to the expulsion of Russian diplomats last month from Spain.
Earlier, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the country was expelling 34 French and 24 Italian diplomats.
Multiple European countries expelled Russian diplomats last month after accusing Russian forces of killing civilians in Bucha and other towns outside Kyiv, accusations the Kremlin has fiercely denied.
BRUSSELS — The European Commission is proposing a nine-billion euro ($9.5 billion) loan to Ukraine to help the war-torn country.
The EU’s executive arm said Wednesday that the macro-financial assistance in the form of loans will be complemented by support from other partners including countries from the Group of Seven major economies.
“We are proposing to top up the significant short-term relief provided until now, with a new exceptional macro-financial assistance for Ukraine of up to 9 billion (euros) in 2022,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.
“But we also need to think about the day after for the wider reconstruction effort. The EU has a responsibility and a strategic interest in leading this reconstruction effort.” The EU said it already has mobilized around 4.1 billion euros ($4.3 billion) to support Ukraine.
MOSCOW — Russia is expelling 34 French and 24 Italian diplomats following similar expulsions of Russian diplomats throughout Europe last month.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that the French diplomatic staff would be given two weeks to leave the country.
Russia said it was responding to “the provocative and utterly baseless decision of French authorities” in April to expel 41 Russian diplomats, which it said had damaged the relationship between the two countries.
Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told state news agency RIA Novosti that 24 Italian diplomats also will be expelled. She gave no other details.
Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said after a meeting with his Finnish counterpart that “this should not interrupt diplomatic channels, because it is through the channels that, if successful, peace will arrive.’
Mutliple European countries expelled Russian diplomats last month after accusing Russian forces of killing civilians in Bucha and other towns outside Kyiv, accusations the Kremlin has fiercely denied.
Russian state news agencies reported Wednesday that the ambassadors of Spain and Sweden had also been summoned to the Foreign Ministry. Russia expelled two Finnish diplomats on Tuesday.
MOSCOW — The Russian military says it has destroyed several artillery pieces that the U.S. delivered to Ukraine.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Wednesday that the Russian military has hit a battery of U.S.-supplied M777 howitzers near the village of Pidhirne of the eastern Donetsk region. The ministry later released a video showing a drone strike on Ukrainian artillery positions.
Konashenkov’s claims couldn’t be independently verified.
The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly reported strikes targeting Western-supplied weapons.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says NATO’s enlargement would depend on Finland and Sweden showing respect to Turkish “sensitivities” concerning “terrorism.”
Erdogan on Wednesday told his ruling party legislators that “NATO’s enlargement would be meaningful for us to the extent that our sensitivities are respected.”
Erdogan spoke hours after Finland and Sweden officially applied to join the military alliance, a move that was driven by security concerns over Russia’s war in Ukraine. His comments suggested Erdogan is refusing to back down on his opposition to the two Nordic countries’ membership in the alliance because of their alleged support for Kurdish militants.
He said Sweden and Finland “will not hand over terrorists to us, but you will ask us to allow you to join NATO.”
“NATO is a security entity. It is a security agency,” Erdogan said. “Therefore, we cannot say ‘yes’ to depriving this security organization of security.”
MOSCOW — The Kremlin says the Ukrainian soldiers at a giant steel mill in the port of Mariupol are surrendering.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that 959 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered since Monday.
Ukrainian authorities say they ordered the fighters to save their lives and said the mission to tie up Russian forces by defending the Azovstal plant is complete.
But they have have avoided describing the action of the ones who left the plant as a surrender.
Asked about the conflicting Russian and Ukrainian narratives, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “There can be just one interpretation: the troops holed up at Azovstal are laying down their weapons and surrendering.”
BERLIN — The United States has mobilized about three times as much support for Ukraine as the European Union, according to figures compiled by a German think tank.
The Kiel Institute for the World Economy said Wednesday that a new aid package passed by the U.S. House of Representatives takes American military, financial and humanitarian support for Ukraine to almost 43 billion euros (over $45 billion) between Jan. 24 and May 10.
The institute found that aid from the EU amounted to just under 16 billion euros ($16.8 billion) during the same period. However, some countries in the 27-nation bloc have shied away from giving the value of their Ukraine aid, particularly for arms supplies.
Compared to their gross domestic products, Estonia, Latvia and Poland provided the most support, ahead of the United States, according to the think tank’s calculations.
BERLIN — Austria’s government says it has no intention of following Sweden and Finland into NATO.
Austria joined the European Union at the same time as the two Nordic nations in 1995. The Swedish and Finnish applications to join NATO will likely leave Austria as one of very few EU countries that aren’t also a member of the trans-Atlantic military alliance.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio on Wednesday that “we decided on neutrality in 1955 and is still the case that a very, very large majority of the population views this positively.”
He said that hasn’t prevented Austria from backing EU sanctions against Russia and giving Ukraine non-lethal support.
Schallenberg said he “takes note” of the Swedish and Finnish decision to make a “massive change” to their security policy — “but the situation looks a bit different here: we will, like Ireland and Malta — there are three states in all in the (European) Union — continue to remain neutral.”
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Danish Defense Intelligence Service on Wednesday heightened the threat level for cyber activism against Denmark because of the recent pro-Russian cyber activist attacks on Western European NATO countries.
Denmark’s Center for Cyber Security which is under the Scandinavian country’s foreign intelligence service, raised the threat level from low to medium – the third level on a five-step scale.
The national IT security authority said that in the initial phase after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, cyber-activist attacks mainly targeted Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
However, “in recent weeks, cyber activists have also hit targets in Western European NATO countries.” It added that cyber-activist attacks have affected in recent weeks targeted “countries in the immediate vicinity of Ukraine. Pro-Russian activist groups have attacked companies and authorities in, for example, the Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia.”
KYIV, Ukraine — The Russian military says that almost 1,000 Ukrainian troops left Mariupol’s last stronghold this week. Ukraine has not confirmed.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday that 694 Ukrainian soldiers at the Azovstal steel plant handed themselves over to Russian troops the past 24 hours, bringing the total of Ukrainian troops who have conceded since Monday to 959.
Konashenkov’s claim couldn’t be independently verified.
Ukrainian authorities have avoided mentioning any numbers for the troops who left the plant.
LONDON — British military authorities say Russia relied heavily on auxiliary forces, including Chechen fighters, to overcome Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, underscoring the manpower and command problems that are hampering Russian operations.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense, in a briefing posted Wednesday morning, says “staunch” Ukrainian resistance delayed Russia’s ability to take full control of the strategic port city and inflicted “costly personnel losses” on Russian forces.
The ministry says the Kremlin has made significant use of auxiliary personnel, including thousands of Chechen fighters concentrated around Mariupol and in the Luhansk region.
These forces include individual volunteers and National Guard units that are usually dedicated to securing the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Chechen Republic.
“The combat deployment of such disparate personnel demonstrates Russia’s significant resourcing problems in Ukraine and is likely contributing to a disunited command which continues to hamper Russia’s operations,” the ministry said.
BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Finland and Sweden have applied to join the world’s biggest military alliance, a move driven by security concerns over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners,” Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday after a receiving their application letters from the two Nordic countries’ ambassadors.
The application must now be weighed by the 30 member countries.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed reservations about Finland and Sweden joining.
If his objections are overcome, and accession talks go as well as expected, the two could become members within a few months. The process usually takes eight to 12 months, but NATO wants to move quickly given the threat from Russia hanging over the Nordic countries’ heads.
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman said the Russian military was holding more than 3,000 civilians from Mariupol at another former penal colony near Olenivka in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Seven buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the Mariupol steel plant were seen arriving Tuesday at former penal colony No. 120 near Olenivka.
Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said on Telegram earlier Tuesday that the civilians were being held at former penal colony No. 52, also near Olenivka.
She said most civilians are held for a month, but those considered “particularly unreliable,” including former soldiers and police, are held for two months.
Denisova said those held include about 30 volunteers who delivered humanitarian supplies to Mariupol while it was under Russian siege.
MELITOPOL, Ukraine — Ukrainian guerrilla fighters reportedly have killed several high-ranking Russian officers in the southern city of Melitopol, the regional administration said on Telegram.
Russian forces have occupied the city since early in the war.
According to the regional administration, the occupiers are trying to conceal the situation but Russian troops were more actively checking private cars in the city Tuesday, most likely looking for the guerrillas.
No details of the killings were given and the report could not immediately be confirmed.
Throughout the war, the Ukrainians have claimed to have killed many Russian generals and other officers. A few of the deaths have been confirmed by the Russians.
KYIV, Ukraine — The fall of Mariupol appears at hand as Ukraine is moving to abandon a sprawling steel plant where its soldiers had held out under relentless bombardment for months, which would make it the biggest city to fall into Russian hands.
Much of the steel plant has been reduced to rubble.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine is working to get its remaining troops safely out of the Azovstal steel plant.
In his nightly video address to the nation, Zelenskyy said the evacuation mission was being supervised by Ukraine’s military and intelligence officers and “the most influential international mediators are involved.”
However, hundreds of Ukrainian fighters have left the Azovstal steel plant and turned themselves over to Russian hands.
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