Russia Hustles to Recruit Soldiers and Halts Gas Supplies to Finland

BERLIN — Russia took new steps on Friday to gird for an escalating struggle with the West over the war in Ukraine, moving to expand military recruitment to older citizens and severing gas supplies to Finland in apparent retaliation for its Nordic neighbor’s application to join the NATO alliance.

The two developments reflected the mounting pressure on Russia because of its three-month-old invasion of Ukraine, which has evolved into something of a stalemate that has seriously depleted the Kremlin’s conventional war capabilities, even as Russia has made some incremental gains.

The conflict also has left Russia increasingly vulnerable economically and energized Western opposition in ways that President Vladimir V. Putin had sought to prevent. Both Sweden and Finland, which share land and sea borders with Russia, broke with their longstanding policies of neutrality and applied to join NATO over the past week, a vote of confidence in the unity of an alliance that has been cemented by the conflict.

Russia said Friday that it was suspending gas shipments to Finland because the Finnish gas company had failed to make payments in rubles. But the Kremlin has used Russia’s energy supply as a political weapon in the past, and previously threatened “retaliation” against Sweden and Finland should they move to join NATO. Last weekend, Moscow suspended electricity exports to Finland after the country’s intention to join the alliance had become clear.

The Finnish company, Gasum, called the latest move from the Russian gas giant Gazprom “highly regrettable,” but said that it did not expect disruptions.

Pipelines at the Gasum plant in Raikkola, Finland, earlier this month.Credit…Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It is very unfortunate that the supply of natural gas under our supply contract will now run out,” the chief executive of Gasum, Mika Wiljanen, said in a statement. “However, we have prepared carefully for this situation and if there are no disruptions in the gas transmission network, we will be able to supply gas to all our customers in the coming months.”

Gas exports are vital to Russia’s economy. They also give Moscow a potent diplomatic tool: Last month, Russia halted natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, two NATO countries that are dependent on Russian gas but have strongly opposed the war in Ukraine. Poland and Bulgaria also had balked at making payments in rubles.

Russia’s reaction underscored the geopolitical fallout from the war in Ukraine as it spurs what could become one of the most radical redrawings of Europe’s security order in decades.

That fallout spread further on Friday as the state-controlled Russian oil giant Rosneft announced that Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany and one of Mr. Putin’s last prominent Western cheerleaders, would be stepping down as chair of the board.

Moscow is increasingly mired in difficulties on the ground in Ukraine, the former Soviet republic that Mr. Putin does not consider a legitimate country. His plan for a quick subjugation of Ukraine after the Feb. 24 invasion has been upended by a series of bruising battles that have forced him to reduce his territorial ambitions and have left Russia’s forces exhausted and its equipment diminished.

Under pressure to score victories and to shore up its forces for an intensifying battle in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Moscow on Friday moved to expand the pool of potential recruits to its military by eliminating the age limit for service.

A destroyed Russian tank beside a heavily damaged home in Velyka Dymerka, near Brovary, Ukraine, earlier this week.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

An amendment introduced by senior lawmakers in Russia’s Parliament would allow Russians older than 40 to sign first-time military service contracts. Under the current law, Russian citizens must be aged 18 to 40 to sign a first-time contract.

The law would bring in more service members with specialties, such as medical workers and engineers, a statement from the lower house of Parliament said.

“Highly professional specialists are needed” to operate military equipment, the statement said.

It made no mention of a manpower shortage in the field. But experts say that Russia suffers that shortage and is under strain, particularly after a series of humiliating setbacks in trying to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and more recently in failing to seize the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

Mr. Putin has resisted ordering a large-scale military draft, apparently fearing domestic backlash, and is instead stepping up recruitment.

The lack of reserve troops is forcing Russian commanders to consolidate depleted battalion tactical groups, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group that has been monitoring the conflict.

The institute quoted an unidentified U.S. defense official as saying that Russian forces have had to disband and combine some battalion tactical groups in Ukraine to compensate for casualties and other losses.

At the same time, the institute said that some Russian troops who had been withdrawn from around Kharkiv, in the northeast of the country, have been redeployed toward the Donetsk region in Donbas.

Artillery vehicles of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region preparing to fire on Ukrainian positions Friday.Credit…Alexei Alexandrov/Associated Press

Even as Russia’s war aims have narrowed, it was fortifying control over parts of Ukraine this week.

After the near-total conquest of the southeast port city of Mariupol, Russian officials appeared to be laying the groundwork for annexing swaths of southeast Ukraine. They have already made changes in some areas, introducing the ruble currency, installing proxy politicians and cutting the population off from Ukrainian broadcasts.

Units that fought in Mariupol can now be sent elsewhere following the surrender of Ukrainian fighters defending a large steel plant. A Russia Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Friday its forces had full control of the plant, which has been “completely liberated.”

The focus has shifted to the eastern battlefield. In the Donbas region, which Russia has vowed to capture after having abandoned more ambitious goals of toppling the central government, Russian troops carried out 13 attacks on Ukrainian positions, the Ukrainian military said.

A weekslong fight around the city of Sievierodonetsk, in the Luhansk region, has intensified in the past day, with Russian forces on Friday firing artillery at a school where more than 200 people were sheltering, killing three of them, a regional military official said.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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Russia’s punishment of Finland. Russia will cut natural gas supplies to Finland on May 21, according to Finland’s state energy provider. Russia said that it was suspending the supply because Finland had failed to comply with its demand to make payments in rubles. Finland has also submitted an application to join NATO, angering Russia.

Support for Ukraine. The Group of 7 economic powers agreed to provide nearly $20 billion to support Ukraine’s economy over the coming months.The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, bringing the total American investment in the war to $54 billion in just over two months.

In southeast Ukraine. Fresh from its triumph over the last armed Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, Russia appeared to be laying the groundwork for annexing swaths of southeast Ukraine. Officials have already moved to introduce the ruble currency, install proxy politicians in local governments and cut the population off from Ukrainian broadcasts.

NATO’s expansion. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he was determined to “say no to Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership,” though he is willing to continue talking to European leaders. He has pointed to the two nations’ stance toward Kurdish militant groups he regards as terrorist organizations as a reason for his objections.

Russian artillery fire into the city and nearby areas killed 12 civilians and damaged more than 60 buildings over the past day, said the governor of Luhansk Province. The Ukrainian military said in its regularly published morning assessment of the war on Friday that its forces had repelled a Russian attempt to storm defensive positions near Sievierodonetsk.

Residents of the Brobovitsa district of Chernihiv, Ukraine, lining up for humanitarian aid on Friday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

To help keep the Ukrainian war effort running, the Group of 7 economic powers on Friday agreed to provide nearly $20 billion in grants and loans to support Ukraine’s economy over the coming months.

Ukraine needs approximately $5 billion per month to maintain basic government services, according to the International Monetary Fund. The G-7 financing was agreed on after the United States, which is contributing more than $9 billion in short-term financing, pressed allies to do more to help secure Ukraine’s future.

While Ukraine’s government has expressed gratitude for Western economic and military aid, it has been critical of NATO over what Ukrainian officials have called the alliance’s lack of support since the Russian invasion.

“Could you name at least one consensus decision made by NATO over the past three months that would benefit and help Ukraine?” Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister, said on Thursday night during a nationwide telethon to raise funds for the country.

Under NATO’s treaty, an attack on one of its 30 members is an attack on all — a provision that has amplified the risk of an escalation with Russia, including the possibility, however remote, of a nuclear war.

While NATO officials have expressed strong support for Ukraine, they have balked at taking any steps that could provoke a Russian attack on any alliance member — rejecting, for example, the Ukrainian government’s repeated pleas to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

A funeral for Denys Ponomarenko, a 25-year-old Ukrainian medic who was killed in March, at St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on Friday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Individually, many NATO countries have provided Kyiv with weaponry and missiles — aid that Mr. Kuleba acknowledged.

“Yes, it is true that the alliance members, individually or in small groups, are really doing awesome and important work, providing vital assistance,” Mr. Kuleba said. “But NATO as an institution has done nothing during this time.”

The latest tests for NATO unity are the accession bids by Finland and Sweden, which still face opposition from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has complained of what he calls their tolerance toward Kurdish militant separatist groups that are considered terrorist organizations in his country.

The Biden administration, which has strongly endorsed the applications of Finland and Sweden, has repeatedly expressed confidence that Turkey’s objections will be resolved.

Katrin Bennhold reported from Berlin, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from Krakow, Poland, and Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine. Reporting was contributed by Alan Rappeport from Königswinter, Germany; Safak Timur from Istanbul; Erika Solomon from Lviv, Ukraine; and James C. McKinley Jr. and Rick Gladstone from New York.

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