Finland’s leadership announced support Thursday for expedited NATO membership despite dire Kremlin warnings of “retaliatory steps.”

The decision by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin is strongly supported by lawmakers and citizens of Finland, though a few steps remain before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden is expected to decide on joining NATO in the coming days.

“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security,” the leaders said in a joint statement. “As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.”

They said they hoped the application would be submitted in the next few days. Finland’s minister for European Affairs, Tytti Tuppurainen, said Finland’s parliament will vote on the matter early next week. Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

“We want to defend our freedom and our equality,” Tuppurainen said. “This is not only about territories and borders. This war is also about values and ideology.”

Russia would view the move as a violation of international legal obligations, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of military and other nature, in order to curtail the threats that arise to its national security in this regard,” the ministry said in a statement.

Guns, bomb shelters and anti-radiation meds: More people in Finland prepare for war with Russia

USA TODAY ON TELEGRAM:Join our Russia-Ukraine war channel to receive the latest updates straight to your inbox

Latest developments:

►As many as 12 Russian missiles hit an oil refinery and other infrastructure Thursday in the Ukrainian industrial hub of Kremenchuk, the acting governor said. Dmytro Lunin urged residents to remain in underground shelters, citing the “persistent” threat of airstrikes.

About 3,000 Mariupol civilians are being detained in prisons controlled by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donetsk region, the Ukraine’s human rights chief says. Lyudmyla Denysova said officials are aware of at least two de facto prisons.

►Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said growing NATO arms supplies and Ukraine troop training increases the “risk of such conflict turning into a full-scale nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for all.”

►Russian forces and affiliated armed groups are responsible for most civilian deaths during the war in Ukraine, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said. She cited heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, and missile and airstrikes “with wide-area effects in populated areas.”

►A Ukrainian human rights activist says LGBTQ people in her country are “on the front line of resistance” against Russia’s invasion and many have joined the Ukrainian army. Olena Shevchenko told a European forum  via a video link that Ukraine’s LGBTQ support groups also have joined in offering humanitarian assistance.

Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation Hails Seizure of Alleged Putin Mega-Yacht 

Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation on Thursday hailed Italy’s seizure of the $700 million mega-yacht Scheherazade, saying it will deprive Vladimir Putin and his alleged mistress Alina Kabaeva one of their biggest perks.

“In March, we released an investigation where we proved that Scheherazade belonged to Putin, and we’ve been pursuing its arrest ever since. So now we can celebrate victory,” according to an email sent to the foundation’s supporters, which is raising money for Navalny’s release.

Navalny is already serving two and a half years in a penal colony east of Moscow since his arrest in early 2021 and was sentenced to another nine years in a maximum security prison in March in a trial Kremlin critics see as an attempt to keep Putin’s most ardent foe incarcerated for as long as possible.

His foundation said the seizure of the yacht is another important step in the fight back against Kremlin kleptocracy, and Russia’s war against neighboring Ukraine.

“Of course, it is our common victory: everyone who has spread the word and supported our work contributed to it,” the foundation said. “Thanks to you, Putin and Kabaeva will no longer be using the gold-plated jacuzzi and spa.”

The foundation provided details of the massive ship, which Italian authorities seized last week as it appeared to be readying to leave the Tuscan port of Marina di Cararra, where it had been undergoing maintenance work in recent months.

The vessel was impounded last Friday night pending a decision by the European Union related to its latest package of sanctions against Russia, the Italian government said in a statement. An investigation by Italy’s financial authorities allegedly found evidence of “significant economic and business links of the beneficial owner of the Scheherazade with prominent elements of the Russian government” and other individuals subject to EU sanctions, according to an English translation of the statement.

In its statement and related request for donations, Navalny’s foundation cited its video investigation, posted online in March,  “where we got as close to Scheherazade as anyone has ever gotten.”

“And, of course, that’s just one small step on the road to total victory,” the foundation said in its new announcement. “Our goal is to make sure that Putin and his entourage lose all of their assets abroad. So that all warmongers feel what it’s like to be held accountable for their actions.”

  — Josh Meyer

More:Silenced by poison, bullets, jail: Navalny, Nemtsov and more Putin critics

Putin blames world hunger issues on West’s drive for ‘global domination’

The West is to blame for the fast-rising food, fuel and fertilizer prices sweeping across the globe that have left some of the world’s poorest countries vulnerable to food insecurity, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday. Putin, speaking at a meeting on economic issues, said sanctions placed on Russia will prompt consequences elsewhere that would be difficult to reverse.

“The blame for this entirely and completely rests with the elites of the Western countries, who for the sake of preserving their global domination are ready to sacrifice the rest of the world,” Putin said. He claimed that Russia is coping well, with domestic companies providing goods lost due to sanctions “after unscrupulous partners left.”

War, explained:Evacuations, accusations and denials: Key events in Russia’s war in Ukraine in 5 graphics

EU unveils plans for allowing Ukraine to export agricultural products

The European Commission on Thursday unveiled plans to establish “solidarity lanes” to help Ukraine export its agricultural produce and import products and humanitarian aid. Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports has bottled up Ukrainian grain and other agricultural goods in the country, threatening global food security. EU Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean said 20 million tons of grains must leave Ukraine in less than three months using the EU infrastructure.

“This is a gigantesque challenge,” she said, adding that it was essential to coordinate supply chains, set up new routes, and “avoid as much as possible the bottlenecks.”

Ukraine and the Russian Federation provide about 30% of the world’s wheat and barley, one-fifth of its maize, and more than half of its sunflower oil.

Parts of Africa, the Near East and Central Asia have been hit the hardest by price shocks, the UN said. In Somalia, many farmers rely on irrigation powered by diesel engines: high fuel prices compounded with drought have experts worried about famine.

US ambassador hearing:Biden’s Ukraine ambassador nominee, Bridget Brink, calls challenges ‘enormous’

Ukraine liberates towns near Kharkiv

Ukrainian counterattacks have been recapturing several towns and villages north of Kharkiv towards the Russian border, the British Defense Ministry said in an assessment Thursday. Russia’s prioritization of operations in the Donbas has left elements deployed in the Kharkiv region vulnerable to the mobile and “highly motivated”  Ukrainian counter-attacking force, the assessment says. Russia encircled Kharkiv in the initial stages of the conflict but has reportedly withdrawn units from the region to reorganize and replenish elsewhere following heavy losses, the assessment adds.

“The withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kharkiv Oblast is a tacit recognition of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population,” the assessment says.

Russia still wants to take Kyiv, Ukrainian general warns

Russia still has plans to take control of Ukraine’s capital, a Ukrainian general says. Brigadier Gen. Oleksiy Hromov said at a briefing that Russian troops will try to storm Kyiv and have plans to take control over the southern Mykolaiv and Odesa regions to build a land corridor to Moldova, home to the Transnistria separatist region.

Hromov also said Russia will try to hold sham elections in captured Ukrainian territories to annex them into Russia. Russian-appointed authorities have already announced plans to seek annexation in the southern Ukraine city of Kherson.

Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to capture the capital in the early days of the invasion, but Russian troops have since refocused on the hotly contested eastern Donbas region.

Contributing:Deirdre Shesgreen and Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Reservists of the Karelia Brigade shoot with live rounds during the Etel'-Karjala 22 (South Karelia 22) local defense exercise in Taipalsaari, south-eastern Finland, on March 9, 2022.

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