Nato and Russia at loggerheads as weapons help Ukraine fight back

Kremlin says West’s military aid could spill into ‘open and direct conflict’ with Nato

An injured Ukrainian serviceman inside the Azovstal iron and steel works in eastern Mariupol: Negotiations are under way for a prisoner swap with Russia. Photograph: Dmytro ‘Orest’ Kozatskyi

Russian forces pounded areas in Ukraine's east on Thursday, including the last pocket of resistance in besieged Mariupol, as a war that is redrawing Europe's security map pushed Finland and Sweden closer to joining Nato.

Nato's support of Ukraine – particularly by supplying weapons – has been critical to Kyiv's surprising success in stymieing Russia's invasion, which began on February 24th.

Many observers thought Moscow’s larger and better-armed military would be hard to stop, but the Ukrainians have bogged Russian troops down and thwarted their goal of overrunning the capital.

Nato members say they are helping Ukraine defend itself but are eager to stress they are not directly involved in the war. But a top Russian official said the West’s supply of weapons and training posed a growing threat the fighting could spill into “an open and direct conflict between Nato and Russia”.


Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia's Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said "there is always a risk of such conflict turning into a full-scale nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for all".

Already the war has unleashed staggering destruction, killed thousands and forced millions from their homes, while shattering Europe’s sense of post-cold war stability.

In the wake of their failure to take Kyiv, Russian forces pulled back and regrouped – and switched their focus to Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, a region where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for eight years.

‘Partial success’

While Russia’s advance there has been slow, the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces noted on Thursday that Moscow had achieved a “partial success”.

Western officials say Russia has gained ground and taken some villages but has not managed to seize any cities.

Associated Press reporters heard explosions on Thursday and saw plumes of smoke near the town of Bakhmut, an area of the Donbas that has seen heavy fighting.

The Ukrainian military said that Russian forces were “storming” two villages near Bakhmut, but the source of the blasts was not immediately clear.

Russian advances in the east follow weeks of their stubborn efforts to push through Ukrainian defences in the Donbas. It is unclear how significant the Russian gains have been.

But any gains in the east may have come at expense of territory elsewhere. Britain's defence ministry said Russia's focus on the Donbas had left its remaining troops around the northeastern city of Kharkiv vulnerable to counterattack from Ukrainian forces, which recaptured several towns and villages around the city.

Still, Russian rocket strikes on Thursday killed one person and wounded three in a suburb of Kharkiv, the regional governor said. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has suffered heavy Russian bombardment during the war as Russia sought to encircle it.

Fighting across the east has driven thousands of residents from their homes.

Overnight airstrikes

Meanwhile, Ukraine's military also said Russian forces had fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian troops in the direction of Zaporizhzhia, which has been a refuge for civilians fleeing Mariupol, and attacked in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions to the north.

Overnight airstrikes in Chernihiv killed three people, according to local media. The regional governor said the strikes on the town of Novhorod-Siverskyi damaged a boarding school, dormitory and administrative building.

And eight to 12 Russian missiles struck an oil refinery and other infrastructure in the central Ukrainian industrial hub of Kremenchuk on Thursday, the region's acting governor, Dmytro Lunin, wrote in a Telegram post.

In early April, he said, the refinery, which had been the last fully functional one in Ukraine at the time, was knocked offline by an attack.

In the southern port of Mariupol, which has largely been reduced to smoking rubble with little food, water or medicine, or what the mayor called a "medieval ghetto", Ukrainian fighters continued to hold out at the Azovstal steel plant, the last stronghold of resistance in the city.

Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said negotiations were under way with Russia to win the release of 38 severely wounded Ukrainian defenders from the plant. She said Ukraine hoped to exchange them for 38 "significant" Russian prisoners of war. – AP