Morale worries, NATO chief warns war could last ‘years’

Four months of brutal fighting in Ukraine appears to strain the morale of troops on both sides, leading to desertions and rebellion against officers’ orders, British defense officials said Sunday. NATO chief warned that the war could drag on for “years”.

“Combat units from both sides are engaged in intense fighting in the Donbas and are likely to experience mixed morale,” the British Ministry of Defense said in its daily assessment of the war, which has been raging for nearly four months.

“Ukrainian troops have likely suffered desertions in recent weeks,” the assessment said, but added that “Russian morale most likely remains deeply troubled.”

It said “there are still cases of entire Russian units refusing orders and armed clashes between officers and their troops.”

The British note said that many Russian soldiers of all ranks “probably remain confused about the objectives of the war”.

In an interview published Sunday in the German weekly Bild am Sonntag, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “no one knows” how long the war could last. “We have to be prepared for it to last for years,” he said.

He also urged allies “not to weaken support for Ukraine, even if the costs are high, not only in terms of military aid, but also because of the rise in the prices of energy and food goods.”

In recent days, Gazprom, the Russian gas company, has reduced deliveries to two major European customers: Germany and Italy. In the case of Italy, energy officials are expected to talk about the situation this week. The head of Italian energy giant ENI said on Saturday that Italy should get through the coming winter with additional gas bought from other sources, but warned Italians that “restrictions” on gas use may be necessary.

Germany will limit the use of gas for electricity production over concerns about possible shortages due to a reduction in supplies from Russia, the country’s economy minister said on Sunday. Germany has been trying to fill its gas storage facilities to capacity for the cold winter months.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck said Germany will try to offset the move by burning more coal, a more polluting fossil fuel. “That’s bitter, but in this situation it’s just necessary to reduce gas consumption,” he said.

However, Stoltenberg stressed that “the cost of food and fuel is nothing compared to the costs that Ukrainians pay daily on the front lines.”

Stoltenberg added: “In addition, if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to achieve his goals in Ukraine, such as when he annexed Crimea in 2014, “we would have to pay an even higher price.”

The British Ministry of Defense said both Russia and Ukraine continued to conduct heavy artillery bombardments on axes to the north, east and south of the Sieverodonetsk pocket, but with little change to the front line.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said via Telegram on Sunday: “It is a very difficult situation in Sievierodonetsk, where the enemy in the middle of the city is conducting aerial reconnaissance with drones 24 hours a day, adjusting fire and adapting quickly to our changes. †

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a trip south from Kiev on Saturday to visit troops and hospital staff in the Black Sea regions of Mykolaiv and Odessa. At each stop, he handed out awards to dozens of people, shook hands and thanked them again and again for their service.

Sometime after Zelenskyy left Mykolaiv, “the enemy inflicted fire damage on units of the armed forces with cannon and rocket artillery in the areas of the Pravdyne, Posad-Pokrovskoe and Blahodatne settlements,” the Ukrainian army briefing said on Sunday.

Stoltenberg’s comments were published a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed concern “that a little bit of Ukraine fatigue is starting to build around the world” and said Ukraine should be supported in its efforts to reverse the Russian invasion.

“It would be a disaster if Putin won. He would like nothing more than to say, ‘Let’s freeze this conflict, let’s have a ceasefire,’” Johnson said.

Johnson spoke on Friday on his return from a surprise trip to Kiev, where he met Zelenskyy to offer continued aid and military training.

Heavy weapons supplied by the West reach the front lines. But Ukrainian leaders have been insisting for weeks that they need more weapons and that they need them sooner.

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Sylvia Hui contributed from London, Frank Jordans from Berlin and Frances D’Emilio from Rome.