British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have warned Western allies to prepare for the long haul in Ukraine, as Russian forces intensified their assault on Ukrainian positions in the east of the country.
The separate warnings from Johnson and Stoltenberg on Saturday came as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited front lines in the southern regions of Mykolaiv and Odesa, where he declared that Ukrainians “will definitely” win against invading Russian troops.
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Johnson, writing in The Sunday Times newspaper, called for sustained support for Ukraine, saying the country’s foreign backers should hold their nerve to ensure it has “the strategic endurance to survive and eventually prevail”.
“Time is now the vital factor,” the British leader wrote in the 1,000-word article posted online on Saturday night.
“Everything will depend on whether Ukraine can strengthen its ability to defend its soil faster than Russia can renew its capacity to attack. Our task is to enlist time on Ukraine’s side.”
To help, he outlined a four-point plan for “constant funding and technical help”, levels of which should be maintained for “years to come” and potentially be increased. And economic concerns – amid global food and energy crises made worse by the conflict – should not lead to a rushed settlement in Ukraine, said Johnson, who is battling inflation at 40-year highs at home and spiralling domestic fuel prices.
He added that allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to keep territory in Ukraine would not lead to a more peaceful world.
“Such a travesty would be the greatest victory for aggression in Europe since the Second World War,” he said.
Stoltenberg also appealed for continued support for Ukraine, telling Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the supply of state-of-the-art weaponry to Ukrainian troops would increase the chance of liberating the eastern Donbas region from Russian control.
“We must prepare for the fact that it could take years. We must not let up in supporting Ukraine,” he said. “Even if the costs are high, not only for military support, also because of rising energy and food prices.”
Setback in Metolkine
On Ukraine’s battlefields, the Ukrainian military reported intensified Russian attacks on its positions in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Izyum, and Severodonetsk.
It said Severodonetsk, a prime target in Moscow’s offensive to seize full control of the eastern region of Luhansk in the Donbas region, was again under heavy artillery and rocket fire, but said that the Russian push to establish full control over the city remains “unsuccessful”.
However, it admitted that its forces had suffered a military setback in the nearby settlement of Metolkine.
“As a result of artillery fire and an assault, the enemy has partial success in the village of Metolkine, trying to gain a foothold,” it said in a Facebook post late on Saturday.
Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian-appointed governor of Luhansk, referred in a separate online post to “tough battles” in Metolkine, while Russia’s Tass news agency, citing a source working for Russian-backed separatists, said many Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Metolkine.
To the northwest, several Russian missiles hit a gasworks in the Izyum district, and Russian rockets rained down on a suburb of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, hitting a municipal building and starting a fire in a block of flats but causing no casualties, Ukrainian authorities said.
Al Jazeera could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.
Southern front lines
Meanwhile, Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president whose defiance has inspired his countrymen and won him global respect, said in a Telegram post on Saturday that he had visited soldiers on the southern front line in the Mykolaiv region, about 550 km (340 miles) south of the capital, Kyiv.
Mykolaiv is a key target for Russia as it lies on the way to the strategic Black Sea port of Odesa. It is about 100 kilometres (62 miles) northwest of Kherson, which fell to Russia in the first weeks of the war.
“Our brave men and women. Each one of them is working flat out,” Zelenskyy said. “We will definitely hold out! We will definitely win!”
A video showed the Ukrainian president in his trademark khaki t-shirt handing out medals and posing for selfies with servicemen.
Zelenskyy’s office said he had also visited National Guard positions in the Odesa region.
“It is important that you are alive. As long as you live there is a strong Ukrainian wall that protects our country,” Zelenskyy told soldiers there.
“I want to thank you from the people of Ukraine, from our state for the great work you are doing, for your impeccable service.”
Zelenskyy has remained mostly in Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine, although in recent weeks he has made unannounced visits to Kharkiv, and two eastern cities close to where battles are being fought.
One of Putin’s stated goals when he ordered his troops into Ukraine was to halt the eastward expansion of the NATO military alliance and keep Moscow’s southern neighbour outside of the West’s sphere of influence.
But the war, which has killed thousands of people, turned cities into rubble and sent millions fleeing, has had the opposite effect – convincing Finland and Sweden to seek to join NATO – and helping to pave the way for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.
The European Commission on Friday recommended that Ukraine be granted EU candidate status – something that the bloc’s members are expected to endorse at a summit this week.
Such a move would put Ukraine on course to realise an aspiration seen as out of reach before Russia’s February 24 invasion, even if actual membership could take years.