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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Sunday “reiterated the unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and security assistance efforts” with the country’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, and provided an update of his call with their Russian counterpart, according to the US Department of Defense.
Austin spoke with Reznikov “to discuss the situation on the battlefield and Ukraine’s capability needs,” according to a department readout.
Austin relayed to Reznikov his correspondence with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday “in which (Austin) urged an immediate end to the conflict in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication.”
“Secretary Austin reiterated the unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and security assistance efforts to bolster Ukraine’s capacity to counter Russian aggression,” the readout concludes, adding the two pledged to remain in contact.
Russian forces fired at the hospital in Severodonetsk on Sunday, Serhii Haidai, the head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, posted to his official Telegram channel.
Nine civilians were injured and received medical treatment at the hospital, which continued to operate during shelling, he said.
“Over the past day, the orcs (a derogatory Ukrainian term for Russian troops) carried out 11 artillery attacks on Severodonetsk,” he added.
The Russians “shelled houses, a chemical plant, a school and a hospital,” he said.
The Ukrainian military has claimed that Russian units have "suffered significant losses in manpower and equipment" as they try to advance westwards to the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, according to a spokesman for the General Staff of the Armed Forces.
"In some areas, the staffing of [Russian] units, as a consequence of hostilities, is less than 20%, " the armed forces general staff said late Sunday.
"In the Popasna direction, due to heavy losses and the inability to act independently, airborne troops of the armed forces of the Russian Federation are teaming up with representatives of Russian private military companies for further action," claimed Oleksandr Shtupun, the general staff spokesman.
The ruins of Popasna fell to Russian forces earlier this month but they appear to have taken little ground in the area since.
The Russians have also been trying to push south from Izium for several weeks, and the general staff said Sunday that they were trying unsuccessfully to conduct offensive and assault operations towards two villages south of the town
The military also said that Russian forces north and east of the city of Kharkiv were trying to defend their positions to "prevent the advance of our troops to the State Border of Ukraine," while continuing to shell towns and villages recently recaptured by Ukraine.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on Germany to take a lead in the process leading to Ukraine becoming part of the European Union.
In a video posted on Facebook on Sunday, Kuleba said that during his visit to Berlin earlier in the week, he had “a very rational discussion with the Germans about Ukraine becoming a part of EU."
"I told them it is going to happen anyway. It is inevitable that Ukraine will receive a candidate status sooner or later. The German elites have a choice to lead this process and inscribe their names in the history of Europe or it will still happen but without their leadership,” he added.
The minister also discussed the Russian oil embargo, currently debated by EU member states, and the issue of a Russian gas embargo also came up during his visit.
After his meeting with German officials, Kuleba also engaged in talks with G7 foreign ministers and said that they “welcomed the idea that it is necessary to freeze Russian assets and transfer them to Ukraine to help rebuild our country. We are talking about hundreds of billions of euros here. Also, (the) G7 said they are ready to take part in rebuilding Ukraine, in the reconstruction of its cities and infrastructure. You know President of Ukraine has an idea of the countries to take charge of certain regions or cities that`s been affected by the war and our partners welcome this idea.”
Kuleba also called for “a solution to remove Russian blockade on the export of Ukrainian agro-industrial products to the world. Right now, Russian aggression is leading the world towards famine. This is why it is important to work with African countries as well. We want them to help to resolving this issue.”
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson announced her party’s support for the country to apply to join NATO.
"We Social Democrats consider that the best for Sweden and the Swedish people’s security is that we join NATO. This is a decision that we have made after very careful consideration," Andersson said during a press conference on Sunday.
Andersson noted this decision reverses a stance the country has taken for 200 years, leaving "a political line of security policies that we have had in different shapes and forms."
"For us Social Democrats, the military non-alliance policy has served us well. But our analysis shows that it will not serve us as well in the future," Andersson said. "This is not a decision that we have taken lightly."
The prime minister said the country must "adapt to reality" and make decisions based on the current climate.
"It is very clear that there is a before and after the 24th of February 2022. Europe, Sweden and the Swedish people are living in a new, dangerous reality. The European security order that Sweden has based its security policies on for centuries, that is now under attack,” Andersson said.
This expected announcement follows suit after Finland announced Sunday its decision to apply to join NATO, after both countries have previously refrained from joining for historic and geopolitical reasons.
Earlier on Sunday, Sweden's Social Democratic Party had released a statement on its website saying it has decided the country should work toward a Swedish application to join NATO.
The statement continues to say that the party should, in case the application is granted by NATO, work to state unilateral conditions against the placement of nuclear weapons and permanent bases on Swedish territory.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde called it "a historic decision" in a tweet.
Earlier Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that "NATO's door is open" to Sweden and Finland.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Sunday, after leading a GOP delegation to Kyiv this weekend to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, that most Republicans support Ukraine's efforts to combat the brutal invasion from Russia.
He held the call in Stockholm, Sweden, where he is currently holding with GOP Sens. Susan Collins, John Barrasso and John Cornyn after their trip to Ukraine. The group is planning to meet with Finland's president on Monday.
When asked about Republicans who are criticizing the spending to help Ukraine, he responded "it's in our interest to help Ukrainians."
"This is not some handout," he said about the spending. "The first place to stop (Russian President Vladimir Putin) is in Ukraine. And that's what we're determined to do."
When asked about Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul blocking the fast-track process to pass the $40 billion Ukraine supplemental, McConnell dismissed any concerns.
"Well, it's no secret Rand and I have a different worldview about the importance of America's role around the world. So that was not surprising and it won't create a problem," he said. "We'll get the job done by Wednesday."
He also said President Joe Biden should declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, saying "I think it's a good idea.”
"Territorial integrity is the goal," he said about Ukraine's goal during this invasion.
He also said he plans to speak to Biden when he's back in the United States. "I'll give President Biden a rundown on the visit once I'm back."
Every day, hundreds and even thousands of people are trying to flee the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in southern Ukraine, gathering up whatever they can cram into their cars, or even piling onto tractors.
And every day, they run into a gauntlet of harassment and worse from Russian troops.
They are leaving for many reasons: to avoid being detained or to escape the heavy-handed actions of Russian forces, or because of the chronic shortages of medicine and other basics in Kherson, which fell under Russian control soon after the invasion.
One of the nearly 5,000 people trying to leave was Arkadiy, who had been previously detained by the occupying forces. CNN is not publishing his last name for his safety.
Last week, he was a part of a convoy of no fewer than 1,000 vehicles trying to leave Kherson. The Russians ultimately let the convoy move in batches — but only after holding it in one place for most of the day.
"For me, this was already the fifth attempt to leave the controlled territory. The previous four times it didn’t work out," he told CNN. "What surprised me was that suddenly Russians let us go through checkpoint without any examination."
He had heard stories of extensive checks, phones being examined and property stolen.
Yulia Bondarenko was also in the convoy, and she also expected the Russians to take things.
"Evacuated people know about this from Telegram chats and don’t even take anything valuable with them," she said. "Russians almost always ask for cigarettes and lighters."
Electronics were often confiscated too — power-banks and memory cards, for example. But "smartphones are generally not taken away by Russians," Bondarenko said. "Although they are closely inspected: they check messages and photo galleries."
Bondarenko said that others had told her the Russians would often force people to take off their clothes because they "are looking for tattoos of nationalist content. Everyone is well aware of this and it is unlikely that nationalists with tattoos will try to leave the region this way, it is a very big risk."
The convoy leaving Beryslav had some 200 vehicles — one minibus for a dozen people were crammed with double that number, Arkadiy said.
The journey was through open, flat countryside on minor roads. But just after it passed the final Russian checkpoint the column of some 200 vehicles came under fire near a place called Davydiv Brid, where Russian control ends.
Arkadiy said two shells landed simultaneously. Vehicles ahead of him were peppered with shrapnel - tires shredded and windshields shattered. Seven or eight cars were badly damaged but trees at the side of the road absorbed some of the impact.
"Everyone immediately began to hide behind the cars. Everyone was scared, people with children in their arms. The children screamed, even the men were panicking."
Yulia Bondarenko was in the same convoy. She also told CNN that they'd just cleared the last Russian checkpoint. "People started running and hiding. But we stayed in the car, we had a lot of animals. We couldn't take them all out at once."
Yulia's menagerie included dogs, cats and two meerkats that were rescued after a petting zoo in Kherson was shelled.
It's still unclear where the shelling came from. Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the Kryvyi Rih military administration, said on Thursday that Russian artillery had fired on the column and two people had received shrapnel wounds.
Others have related similarly harrowing escapes from Kherson. Katerina Torgunova lived with her husband and three-year old daughter in the town of Oleshky.
The day they left, she said, "We passed the first two checkpoints relatively calmly, and at the third checkpoint we had huge problems. The Russians started firing flash flares into the air as we approached them."
"Then we were pulled out of the car, they started to curse us. My husband was searched for a long time."
Others speak of being on the road for two days trying to find a way out of Kherson.
Julia Kartuzova and her two children had to sleep overnight in a kindergarten as they tried to find an escape route.
Then came what she and others call the 'grey zone' — the no-man's land between Russian and Ukrainian control. "There are fights going on. It was very dangerous there, because the shells fell right there, a hundred meters from our car."
"We lost count of how many checkpoints we had to go through. There must have been more than a hundred in total."
Arkadiy says the main routes out of Kherson to Mykolaiv, which is still in Ukrainian hands, are heavily damaged and often impassable.
Hennadii Lahuta, head of the Kherson regional military administration, says the Russians have not approved a single evacuation corridor from Kherson since the beginning of the occupation. For a week at the beginning of May, Lahuta said, the Russians had blocked the route taken by Arkadiy and others.
On May 11, the Russians allowed people to use that route again, which explains the sudden mass exodus.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna said she hopes Ukraine’s application to join the EU is considered fast and there are lessons learned following Finland and Sweden considerations to join NATO.
“We will see with the now position of Sweden and Finland, who have decided to apply for NATO membership, and the response from the allies that this application will be considered and fulfilled immediately," she said. "It only serves one very obvious argument that NATO has learned on the mistakes and the political mistakes which has been done back in 2008 by making promises without delivering on decisions in terms of membership which has basically led to three wars, two of which are now happening on Ukrainian territory.”
“We hope that now when it comes to the concentration of Ukrainian application to EU, it would happen also much faster," she added.
Earlier on Sunday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he hopes that the ascension process for Sweden and Finland into NATO is "faster than we have seen before."
"My intention is still to have a quick and swift process," he said, adding that while the ratification process will take time — as it is standard when going through 30 parliaments — "this is a historic opportunity we need to seize."
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated comments made by Deputy Prime Minister Stefanishyna. She was referring to the EU when she said she hopes Ukraine's application to join the body is considered fast.