For years, President Vladimir V. Putin has viewed NATO expansion as an existential threat that would enclose Russia with Western missiles at its doorstep. Now Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine appears to be bringing the Russian leader’s nightmare to life as NATO embarks on its largest potential expansion in nearly two decades.

After traversing the post-war era in liberties and neutrality, Sweden and Finland are now actively exploring the ascension to the military alliance forged in the Cold War, with officials from both countries set to meet with their NATO counterparts on Saturday.

Russia immediately lashed out, halting electricity exports to Finland and promising an unspecified “military-technical” response after warning that the move would pose a clear threat to its own national security.

Some analysts were concerned that Russia was laying the groundwork for threatening to deploy nuclear weapons near its border with Finland. But officials in both Sweden and Finland downplayed that threat, noting that with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad just 200 miles away, Moscow already has nuclear missiles within reach.

An acceptance of Sweden and Finland into NATO, a process that could take up to a year to complete, would take the Western military alliance as far as Russia’s 810-mile border with Finland and would mark another sweeping shift in the strategic landscape. of Europe mean. by the Russian war in Ukraine. At the same time, the Pentagon is sending new troops into Europe to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank, indicating that the temporary troop build-up is likely to become permanent.

As the Western powers pushed for what the Ukrainian defense minister called a “new, long phase” in the war, developments on the ground confirmed the idea that Ukraine was still doggedly fighting Russia in the east and reported that it was gaining ground.

In recent days, Ukrainian forces have begun to consolidate control over the major city of Kharkiv after months of Russian attacks and heavy shelling. In an apparent repeat of Russia’s retreat from Kiev, the battered battalions are withdrawing to protect critical supply lines to the east and bolster struggling units elsewhere in the Donbas in the east of the country, Ukrainian officials said.

The head of Kharkiv’s regional military administration said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces have launched a counter-offensive against Russian forces around the northeastern city of Izium, which Russia captured last month and had hoped to use as a base for a drive south to other major cities.

In a fit of US diplomacy, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, paid a surprise visit to Ukraine on Saturday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky. The accompanying delegation of US lawmakers was just the last to travel to the country as the United States deepen its commitment to Kiev’s fight against the Russian invasion.

US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was scheduled to travel to Germany on Saturday to meet with NATO counterparts ahead of talks with Sweden and Finland.

In a phone call on Saturday, President Sauli Niinisto of Finland said he had told President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that his country is seeking to join NATO because Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine had “fundamentally changed” Finland’s security environment.

Mr Putin warned the Finnish leader it was a “mistake” to abandon Finland’s long-standing policy of military neutrality, the Kremlin said in a statement.

“By joining NATO, Finland is strengthening its own security and assuming its responsibility,” the Finnish president said in a statement, adding that Finland “wants to resolve in a correct and professional manner the practical questions arising from being a a neighbor of Russia.”

There was initial alarm when Turkey, a longtime NATO member, indicated this week that it could try to block the Scandinavian countries’ accession to the alliance. But on Saturday, a spokesman for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed any potential challenge and said Turkey was merely trying to ensure that all the security concerns of all alliance members were heeded.

NATO’s potential growth added to an ever-growing list of setbacks for Mr Putin. The Russian military offensive in eastern Ukraine continues to grind to a halt, and The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said in its latest assessment the Ukrainians have now won the Battle of Kharkov.

The Kremlin, having failed in its initial campaign to take the Ukrainian capital and oust the government, cannot afford to accept another defeat in the east.

In an interview with Britain’s Sky News on Saturday, the chief of military intelligence, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said the coming months would be decisive.

“The breaking point will be in the second half of August,” he said. “Most active combat operations will be completed by the end of this year.”

But as Moscow’s forces around Kharkov are driven back to the Russian border, they are expected to fight hard to keep critical supply routes through the region open. Russia also controls a large tract of land in southeastern Ukraine, where it is increasingly strengthening its position. The military campaign, analysts say, will continue to degenerate into a protracted spurt marked by heavy casualties on both sides and devastating long-range bombing.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned of “extremely tough weeks” ahead. “No one can say for sure how many of them it will be,” he said in a statement.

President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the struggle to regain control of the Russian-occupied territories would be long and arduous, but he vowed that they would not be given up.

“The gradual liberation of the Kharkiv region proves that we will not leave anyone to the enemy,” he said.

The impact of the battles on the battlefield continues to ripple around the world.

The war has disrupted wheat production in Ukraine and Russia, both major suppliers, while fighting and naval blockades in the Black Sea have disrupted the grain’s transportation. And poor harvests in China, along with a heat wave in India and drought in other countries, have further reduced global supply.

But India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, says it is banning exports with few exceptions, a move that could widen a global deficit exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and the already bleak hunger forecast. around the world could strengthen.

India has about 10 percent of the world’s grain reserves, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture, a large surplus due to the heavy subsidization of its farmers. It has been seen for months as a country that could help fill global deficits.

“The Russian war of aggression has led to one of the most serious food and energy crises in recent history,” the leaders of the world’s richest democracies, the Group of 7, said in a statement on Saturday, adding that the problem “is now most threatens vulnerable around the world.”

Reporting contributed by Carlotta Gallo from Kharkov, Ukraine; Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland; Steven Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia; Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Cassandra VinogradI from London; Emily Cochrane from Washington; and Sameer Yasir from New Delhi.

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