The Ukrainian roundup

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May 18 (Reuters) – Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO on Wednesday, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and triggering one of the most significant changes in Europe’s security architecture in decades.

FIGHTING

* Russia’s defence ministry said that 694 Ukrainian fighters holed up in Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks had surrendered over the last 24 hours, RIA news agency reported. Since Monday, 959 militants from Azovstal had surrendered, 80 of whom were wounded, RIA said.

ECONOMY

* Britain and fellow G7 nations are looking at how Russian assets can be used to fund the rebuilding of Ukraine, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said. 

*The European Commission proposed on Wednesday a 9 billion euro ($9.5 billion) loan to Ukraine to keep the country going as it struggles to fend off the Russian invasion and wants to set up a reconstruction facility for after the war.The money for the 9 billion loan would be borrowed by the Commission on the markets under the macro-financial assistance mechanism, backed by guarantees of EU governments.

*Russian authorities have seized Google Russia’s bank account, making it impossible for its Russian office to function, a Google spokesperson said on Wednesday after Google’s Russian subsidiary declared its intention to file for bankruptcy.”Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy,” the spokesperson said.

* U.N. chief Antonio Guterres is expected to publicly disclose on Wednesday that he is in talks with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, the United States and the European Union aimed at restoring Ukraine grain shipments and reviving fertilizer exports from Russia and Belarus, U.N. officials said.

* Russian gas producer Gazprom said it continues to supply gas to Europe through Ukraine via the Sudzha entry point, with volumes on Wednesday.

* Swiss packaging group Vetropack VETN.S said it would cut roughly 400 jobs in Ukraine following severe war damage to its Hostomel plant, a sign of the widening economic toll of the fighting in Ukraine.

DIPLOMACY

* U.S. President Joe Biden will host the leaders of Sweden and Finland at the White House on Thursday to discuss their NATO applications. 

*Rome strongly supports Finland’s and Sweden’s application to join NATO and is willing to speed up any internal procedures for the two countries to join the alliance as soon as possible, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Wednesday.Following a meeting with Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin in Rome, Draghi added Europe needed to build a “true” defence system, complementary to NATO.

* Peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have stagnated, officials said, with both sides trading blame and Moscow indicating a return to talks may be difficult.

*Russia will expel 24 Italian diplomats in a retaliatory move, news agency RIA cited the foreign ministry as saying on Wednesday – the latest in a series of tit-for-tat responses to European countries that have ordered out Russian staff.

*Twenty-seven Spanish diplomats must leave Russia within a week, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.

Spain said in April it would expel some 25 Russian diplomats and embassy staff from Madrid, joining other European Union countries that have ordered Russian officials to leave.

*Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it was expelling 34 French diplomats in a retaliatory move.France in April kicked out 35 Russians with diplomatic status as part of a broader wave of expulsions that saw more than 300 Russians sent home from European capitals. Later that month France’s foreign ministry declared six Russian agents posing as diplomats as “persona non grata” after an investigation by the domestic intelligence services concluded they were working against French national interests.

Photo courtesy Ukrainian Armed Forces

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