Finland's President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin Thursday expressed their approval for joining NATO, a move that would complete a major policy shift for the country in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"NATO membership would strengthen Finland's security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance," they said in a joint statement. "Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days."
The leaders said they came to their decision after allowing time for Finland's Parliament and the public to consider the matter, and to consult with NATO and neighboring Sweden. Officials in Sweden are expected to consider their own possible NATO application in the coming days.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in late April that if Finland and Sweden were to apply, "they will be welcomed and I also expect the process to be quick."
Russia has warned against NATO expansion, and said in March that if Finland and Sweden join the alliance, "there will be serious military and political consequences."
The fight for Ukraine played out beyond the battlefields on Wednesday, with Kyiv cutting off one Russian natural gas pipeline that supplies European homes and industry, while a Moscow-installed official in southern Ukraine said the Kremlin should annex Kherson after Russian troops took control.
Ukraine's natural gas pipeline operator said it was stopping Russian shipments through a hub in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists because of interference from enemy forces, including the apparent siphoning of gas.
About one-third of Russian gas headed to Western Europe passes through Ukraine, although one analyst said the immediate effect might be limited since much of it can be redirected through another pipeline. Russia's giant state-owned Gazprom said gas flowing to Europe through Ukraine was down 25% from the day before.
The European Union, as part of its announced effort to punish Russia for its 11-week invasion of Ukraine, is looking to end its considerable reliance on Russian energy to heat homes and fuel industries.
It has, however, encountered some opposition from within its 27-member bloc of nations, especially from Hungary, which says its economy would sustain a major hit if its supply of Russian energy were cut off.
In Brussels, negotiations with Hungary over a ban on Russian energy purchases ended Wednesday for the moment. If not resolved, it would constitute a major split among NATO allies in unified Western sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin to sanction him for his invasion of Ukraine.
A girl and her grandparents evacuate near Lyman, Ukraine, May 11, 2022.
Meanwhile, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Kherson regional administration installed by Moscow, told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, "The city of Kherson is Russia.'
He asked that Putin declare Kherson a "proper region" of Russia, much as Moscow did in 2014 in seizing Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and declaring Luhansk and Donetsk as independent entities shortly before invading Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that it would be "up to the residents of the Kherson region" to make such a request, and to make sure there is an "absolutely clear" legal basis for the action.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak derided the notion of its annexation, tweeting: "The invaders may ask to join even Mars or Jupiter. The Ukrainian army will liberate Kherson, no matter what games with words they play."
Kherson is a Black Sea port with a population of about 300,000 and provides access to fresh water for neighboring Crimea. Russian forces captured it early in the war.
On the war front, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his Tuesday night address that Ukraine's military is gradually pushing Russian troops away from Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city and a key battleground in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin is trying to capture against stiff opposition from Kyiv's forces.
Ukraine is also targeting Russian air defenses and resupply vessels on Snake Island in the Black Sea, according to the British Defense Ministry.
The ministry said Russian resupply vessels have minimum protection since the Russian Navy retreated to Crimea following the sinking of the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet. Separately, Ukraine said it shot down a cruise missile targeting the Black Sea port city of Odesa on Wednesday.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Press and Reuters.