UPDATED: Russia says it will beef up forces near western border

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May 20 (Reuters) – Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday that moves by Finland and Sweden to join NATO were part of an increase in military threats near Russia’s western borders, and it was taking “adequate countermeasures”.

In a speech, Shoigu also said the United States had stepped up strategic bomber flights in recent years, sent warships to the Baltic Sea and intensified training exercises in the region with its NATO partners.

He said Russia would respond by forming 12 units and divisions in its western military district, and that it was working to improve the combat strength of its troops.

“Tension continues to grow in the zone of responsibility of the Western Military District. We are taking adequate countermeasures,” Shoigu said.

Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the Western defence alliance NATO on Wednesday. 

President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Swedish and Finnish NATO membership posed no threat to Russia, but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance boosted military infrastructure in the two countries. 

Shoigu said that almost 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers holed up in Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks have surrendered so far, TASS news agency reported on Friday.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the report. Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters have surrendered from the labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels below the plant, though Moscow and Kyiv have given different estimates on numbers. 

Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the Western defence alliance NATO on Wednesday. 

A view of a banner with the letters Z and V, in Moscow, Russia. The letters Z and V, painted on Russian military vehicles in Ukraine, have quickly become a symbol of support of the Russian army. EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV

The top U.S. military officer, General Mark Milley, spoke by telephone with Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the Pentagon said on Thursday, the first conversation between the two since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

“The military leaders discussed several security-related issues of concern and agreed to keep the lines of communication open,” said a spokesman for Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“In accordance with past practice, the specific details of their conversation will be kept private,” the spokesman added.

The U.S. military readout did not mention any specific issues that were discussed.

RIA news agency, citing the Russian defense ministry, said the two military leaders discussed issues of “mutual interest,” including Ukraine.

The call took place after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart last week, and the Pentagon chief called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine.

The United States and Russia have established a hotline since the invasion – which Moscow calls a “special military operation” – began on Feb. 24 to prevent miscalculation and any widening of the conflict.

The “deconfliction” hotline is an open phone line based at the European Command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, and falls under Air Force General Tod Wolters, who leads all U.S. forces in Europe.

Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, Wolters said he hoped the call between Milley and Gerasimov was one step closer to a diplomatic solution in Ukraine.

Still, there appears to be little momentum on the diplomatic front, more than two months after the start of Russia’s invasion, which has left thousands dead or injured, reduced towns and cities to rubble, and forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad.

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