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Exclusive-Allies to approve Finland, Sweden NATO bid, offer security, diplomats say

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: National flags of members of the NATO are seen, on the day of a foreign ministers meeting amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium March 4, 2022. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO allies expect Finland and Sweden to apply to join the alliance in the coming days and will grant membership quickly, five diplomats and officials said, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forces a radical rethink of European security.

During the one-year ratification of their membership, the allies would provide an increased troop presence in the Nordic region, hold more military exercises and naval patrols in the Baltic Sea and possibly rotate U.S. and British forces through Finland and Sweden, they said.

Finland and Sweden would not benefit from NATO’s collective defence clause – that an attack on one ally is an attack on all – until the parliaments of all 30 member states have ratified the decision.

In the wider Nordic region, Norway, Denmark and the three Baltic states are already NATO members.

President Sauli Niinisto of Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (810-mile) border with Russia, will announce his stance on Thursday, a move that will be considered as official confirmation of Helsinki’s decision to join.

Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats are expected to decide on Sunday whether to overturn decades of opposition to NATO membership. Sweden’s parliament is holding a parallel, all-party review of security policy which is due to report on Friday.

“Yes and yes: they will apply and they will be granted membership,” said one senior diplomat, speaking on condition on anonymity, of how the two Nordic nations will act.

‘BLESSED MOMENT’

“If not now, then when?” said a second diplomat, citing not only Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine but also the fact that Moscow has had to pour so many troops into its southern neighbour as part of its “special operation” to disarm it.

A third NATO diplomat concurred: “It is a blessed moment. Russia is not in a position to attack (the Nordic nations).”

However, envoys said Moscow could announce that it was moving missiles and other weapons and armour closer to its border with Finland.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined on Wednesday to comment on Russia’s possible reaction.

“Of course, we observe everything that is connected with actions that are capable of somehow changing the configuration of the alliance near our borders in the most attentive way,” he said. “This is a subject for very, very careful analysis. For now, we can’t say any more.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, visiting Sweden and Finland on Wednesday, said he had agreed new deals with both nations to bolster European security, pledging support for their armed forces if they came under attack.

Johnson also reiterated that NATO is a defensive alliance that does not threaten other countries.

Russia strongly disagrees, viewing NATO enlargement as a direct threat to its own security. It has cited the issue as a reason for its actions in Ukraine, which also aspires to join the alliance one day.

Sweden recently sought U.S. reassurances that Washington would shore up its security in the event of Russian retaliation. The U.S. mission at NATO declined to comment directly.

“We are confident that we could find ways to address any concerns either country may have about the period of time between a NATO membership application and their potential accession to the Alliance,” said Jeff Adler, spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to NATO.

Alliance diplomats and officials said membership bids by Sweden and Finland were sure to be approved, either at or before a planned NATO summit in Madrid on June 28-30.

“There’s no exact timeline. We will not wait for the Madrid summit if it can be approved sooner,” a NATO official said.

Some diplomats expected Finland and Sweden to apply for membership a few weeks before the Madrid summit to allow for approval at the summit, which will be attended by all allied leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden.

That would be full of symbolism for NATO. It was at an allied summit in Madrid in 1997 that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were invited to join, in the first of several waves of NATO’s eastern expansion.

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Republican Budd, backed by Trump, wins North Carolina Senate nomination

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© Reuters. A woman wears a t-shirt falsely claiming that former U.S. President Donald Trump won the 2020 election, after a presentation to the Surry County board of commissioners by several individuals that aimed to cast doubt on election integrity, urging the commi

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By Jarrett Renshaw and Joseph Ax

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – U.S. Representative Ted Budd, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, defeated former Governor Pat McCrory in Tuesday’s Republican U.S. Senate primary in North Carolina, the latest evidence that Trump retains crucial sway over his party.

Polls also closed in Pennsylvania, where voters were selecting party nominees in critical U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races ahead of Novembers midterm elections.

Budd will face Democratic former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who easily won her party’s nomination in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Richard Burr.

President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats are fighting to retain their slim majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate in the Nov. 8 elections. Democrats in both states are vying to win Senate seats being vacated by retiring Republicans.

The Pennsylvania Republican senatorial primary turned into an unpredictable three-way battle in its final days. Conservative political commentator Kathy Barnette surged into contention against two better-funded rivals: Trump-endorsed TV wellness celebrity Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund chief executive David McCormick (NYSE:MKC).

A weekend opinion poll by the Trafalgar Group, a Republican firm, showed Oz leading Barnette 28.5% to 26.8%, within the margin of error, with McCormick trailing at 21.6%.

Barnette’s rise – along with that of state senator and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a far-right candidate who has echoed Trump’s conspiracy theories – has worried some establishment Republicans that the duo could prove too extreme for voters in the general election.

In Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, progressive Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has been comfortably ahead of centrist U.S. Representative Conor Lamb in polls. Fetterman has been hospitalized in Lancaster since suffering a stroke last week but said doctors expect a full recovery.

His campaign on Tuesday released a photo of him voting from his hospital bed via an emergency absentee ballot, shortly before his campaign said he successfully had a pacemaker installed to address irregular heart rhythms that caused the stroke.

Final results may not be known tonight. Pennsylvania officials said voters requested 908,000 absentee or mail-in ballots. State law prevents these from being processed until Election Day.

CAWTHORN FACES TEST

In North Carolina, Trump ally Madison Cawthorn, a first-term Republican congressman who has frustrated his party’s leaders with a series of self-inflicted scandals, was struggling to fend off a challenge in the House primary from state Senator Chuck Edwards. With more than a third of the expected vote tallied, Edwards held a 10 percentage point margin over Cawthorn.

Cawthorn, at 26 the House’s youngest member, has claimed that conservative leaders invited him to a cocaine-fueled orgy, attempted twice to bring a gun onto a plane and was forced to defend his conduct after a video surfaced that showed him nude and gyrating against someone.

More than 580,000 North Carolina voters had already cast their ballots in person or by mail, nearly twice as many as four years ago, according to the state Board of Elections. Those voters returned slightly more Democratic than Republican ballots.

In Idaho, meanwhile, incumbent Republican Governor Brad Little faces Trump-backed primary challenger Janice McGeachin, the state’s lieutenant governor.

Trump has endorsed more than 150 candidates as he tries to solidify his status as his party’s kingmaker, though his picks have not always prevailed. His support helped author J.D. Vance win the Ohio Senate primary, but his favored candidate lost in Nebraska’s gubernatorial race last week.

STRUGGLE FOR SENATE

Republicans are well positioned to regain control of the House, which could enable them to frustrate Biden’s legislative agenda. Democrats have a better chance of keeping control of the Senate, currently split 50-50 between the parties with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote.

Biden’s public approval rating is at 42%, with 50% of Americans disapproving of his performance, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll completed on Tuesday.

Barnette, seeking to become Pennsylvania’s first Black U.S. senator, has called her rivals insufficiently conservative. She was photographed marching toward the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, alongside members of the extremist Proud Boys group shortly before a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building in a failed bid to overturn his 2020 election loss.

Barnette’s campaign told NBC she did not take part in or condone the destruction of property and has no connection to the Proud Boys.

Trump last week endorsed Mastriano, who is leading the polls in Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial primary and was also present outside the Capitol on the day of the riot. Mastriano played a significant role in the Trump campaign’s failed effort to overturn the state’s presidential results based on false claims of voting fraud.

Mastriano has said he would pursue a statewide abortion ban, after a leaked draft opinion showed the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationwide.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who had no rivals for the Democratic nomination, has vowed to protect abortion rights. Shapiro said on Tuesday that he was isolating at home after testing positive for COVID-19.

Primary elections are also taking place in Kentucky and Oregon.

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Trump-endorsed Ted Budd wins Republican primary for North Carolina’s Senate seat

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S Representative Ted Budd speaks during a rally hosted by former U.S. President Donald Trump in Selma, North Carolina, U.S. April 9, 2022. REUTERS/Erin Siegal McIntyre

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. congressman Ted Budd, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, defeated former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory in the Republican primary to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Richard Burr, Edison Research projected on Tuesday.

Budd’s victory – a sign of Trump’s continued influence in the party – means he will face Democrat Cheri Beasley, a former state chief justice, in the Nov. 8 congressional election.

The race is crucial to Republican hopes of regaining control of a Senate narrowly held by President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats. Burr is a Republican.

Biden’s public approval rating is at 42%, with 50% of Americans disapproving of his performance, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll completed on Tuesday.

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Mariupol defenders surrender to Russia but their fate is uncertain

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© Reuters. A bus carrying wounded service members of Ukrainian forces from the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol drives under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict upon arrival in Novoazovsk, Ukraine May 16, 2022. REUTERS

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By Natalia Zinets

MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) -More than 250 Ukrainian fighters surrendered to Russian forces at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol after weeks of desperate resistance, bringing an end to the most devastating siege of Russia’s war in Ukraine and allowing President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in his faltering campaign.

Even as the Kremlin prepares to take full control of the ruins of Mariupol, it faces the growing prospect of defeat in its bid to conquer all of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas because its badly mauled forces lack the manpower for significant advances, some analysts of the Russian campaign said.

Buses left the steelworks late on Monday in a convoy escorted by Russian armoured vehicles. Five arrived in the Russian-held town of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said wounded fighters would be treated.

Seven buses carrying Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal garrison arrived at a newly reopened prison in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka near Donetsk, a Reuters witness said.

There were some women aboard at least one of the buses in Olenivka, Reuters video showed. Some of the women wore olive green uniforms, as did most of the men. All of them appeared exhausted. One rested against duffel bags stacked on the floor.

What will happen to the fighters was unclear. The Kremlin said Putin had personally guaranteed the prisoners would be treated according to international standards, and Ukrainian officials said they could be exchanged for Russian captives.

TASS news agency said a Russian committee planned to question the soldiers, many of them members of the Azov Battalion, as part of an investigation into what Moscow calls “Ukrainian regime crimes”.

The denouement of a battle which came to symbolise Ukrainian resistance gives Moscow total control of the Azov Sea coast and an unbroken stretch of eastern and southern Ukraine, even as its troops retreat from the outskirts of Kharkiv in the northeast.

Officials from both sides said on Tuesday that peace talks aimed at ending the war had stagnated. Negotiators last convened in-person in late March, and there has been little communication between them in recent weeks.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko said Ukraine “has practically withdrawn from the negotiation process,” While Russian negotiator Leonid Slutsky said talks were not being conducted in any format.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said talks were “on hold” as Russia is not willing to accept that it will not achieve its goals.

PRISONER SWAP?

The complete capture of Mariupol is Russia’s biggest victory since it launched what it calls a “special military operation” on Feb. 24. But the port lies in ruins, and Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people were killed under months of Russian bombardment.

Russia said at least 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered”, including 51 severely wounded. Ukraine said 264 soldiers, including 53 wounded, had left.

Russian defence ministry video showed fighters leaving the plant, some carried on stretchers, others with hands up to be searched by Russian troops.

While both sides spoke of a deal under which all Ukrainian troops would abandon the steelworks, many details were not yet public, including how many fighters still remained inside, and whether any form of prisoner swap had been agreed.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar told a briefing that Kyiv would not disclose how many fighters remained inside until all were safe. Ukraine’s military said units in Azovstal had completed their combat mission.

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Kyiv aimed to arrange a prisoner swap for the wounded once their condition stabilises, but neither side disclosed terms for any specific deal.

High-profile Russian lawmakers spoke out against any prisoner swap. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, said: “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged.”

Lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated combatants “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.

Natalia, wife of a sailor among those holed up in the plant, told Reuters she hoped “there will be an honest exchange”. But she was still worried: “What Russia is doing now is inhumane.”

The United Nations and Red Cross say the true death toll from the Mariupol siege is still uncounted but it is certain to be Europe’s worst since the 1990s wars in Chechnya and the Balkans.

UKRAINIAN ADVANCES

Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have been advancing at their fastest pace for more than a month, driving Russian forces out of the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.

Ukraine says its forces had reached the Russian border, 40 km (25 miles) north of Kharkiv. They have also pushed at least as far as the Siverskiy Donets river 40 km to the east, where they could threaten supply lines to Russia’s main advance in the Donbas.

Russia is still pressing that advance despite taking heavy losses. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia had shelled the areas in the north and west on Tuesday to compensate for what he called Russia’s failures in the east and south.

“They cannot produce any successes for their combined forces in areas where they are trying to advance,” Zelenskiy said in a late night address. “These strikes, like many of those that came before them, will give them nothing.”

Putin may have to decide whether to send in more troops and hardware to replenish his dramatically weakened invasion force as an influx of modern Western weaponry bolsters Ukraine’s combat power, analysts said.

“Time is definitely working against the Russians. They’re running out of equipment. They’re running out of particularly advanced missiles. And, of course, the Ukrainians are getting stronger almost every day,” said Neil Melvin of the RUSI think-tank in London.

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