Russia continues siege of Ukraine’s Severodonetsk as morale, desertion concerns grow

A fuel storage depot in the Eastern Ukrainian town of Novomoskovsk exploded on Sunday, killing one person and injuring two, after it had been hit by three Russian missiles, the regional administration chief said in an online message.

NATO secretary general warns Russia's war in Ukraine could drag on for 'years'

Four months of war in Ukraine appear to be straining the morale of troops on both sides, prompting desertions and rebellion against officers' orders, British defence officials said Sunday.

"Combat units from both sides are committed to intense combat in the Donbas and are likely experiencing variable morale," Britain's defence ministry said in its daily assessment of the war.

"Ukrainian forces have likely suffered desertions in recent weeks," the assessment said, but added that "Russian morale highly likely remains especially troubled."

It said "cases of whole Russian units refusing orders and armed stand-offs between officers and their troops continue to occur."

Separately, the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate released what it said were intercepted phone calls in which Russian soldiers complained about front-line conditions, poor equipment, and overall lack of personnel, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.

WATCH | What happened in Week 17 of Russia's attack on Ukraine:
Russian forces tightened their grip on the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk and nearly claimed the entire Luhansk region, while Ukraine established export routes for grain through Poland and Romania to try to avoid a world food crisis. Here’s a recap of the war in Ukraine from June 11 to June 17.

Meanwhile, NATO's chief warned the fighting could drag on for "years."

In an interview published on Sunday in the German weekly Bild am Sonntag, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that "nobody knows" how long the war could last. "We need 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 increase in energy and food goods prices."

In recent days, Gazprom, the Russian gas company, has reduced supplies to two major European clients — Germany and Italy. In Italy's case, energy officials are expected to huddle this week about the situation. The head of Italian energy giant ENI said on Saturday that with additional gas purchased from other sources, Italy should make it through the coming winter, but he warned Italians that "restrictions" affecting gas use might be necessary.

Germany will limit the use of gas for electricity production amid concerns about possible shortages caused by 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 ahead of the cold winter months.

WATCH | Ukraine shuts off key natural gas pipeline from Russia to Europe:
Ukraine's natural gas pipeline operator has stopped Russian shipments through a key hub in an area in the east of the country controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck said that Germany will try to compensate for the move by increasing the burning of coal, a more polluting fossil fuel. "That's bitter, but it's simply necessary in this situation to lower gas usage," he said.

Stoltenberg stressed, though, that "the costs of food and fuel are nothing compared with those paid daily by the Ukrainians on the front line."

Stoltenberg added: What's more, if Russian President Vladimir Putin should reach his objectives in Ukraine, like when he annexed Crimea in 2014, "we would have to pay an even greater price."

Fighting in the Donbas

Ukraine's eastern Donbas region — home to Moscow-backed separatists — has been the main focus of Russia's attacks for more than two months after an initial bid to take Kyiv failed.

Britain's defence ministry said that both Russia and Ukraine have continued to conduct heavy artillery bombardments on axes to the north, east and south of the Severodonetsk pocket in the Donbas, but with little change in the front line.

Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said via Telegram on Sunday: "It is a very difficult situation in Severodonetsk, where the enemy in the middle of the city is conducting round-the-clock aerial reconnaissance with drones, adjusting fire, quickly adjusting to our changes."

Russia's defence ministry claimed on Sunday that Russian and separatist forces have taken control of Metolkine, a settlement just to the east of Severodonetsk.

Bakhmut, a city in the Donbas, is 55 kilometres southwest of the twin cities of Lysyhansk and Serverodonetsk, where fierce military clashes have been raging. Every day, Russian artillery pummels Bakhmut.

'We will not give away the south'

On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a trip south from Kyiv to visit troops and hospital workers in the Mykolaiv and Odesa regions along the Black Sea. He handed out awards to dozens of people at every stop, shaking their hands and thanking them again and again for their service.

Zelensky, in a recorded address aboard a train back to Kyiv, vowed to defend the country's south.

"We will not give away the south to anyone, we will return everything that's ours and the sea will be Ukrainian and safe."

He added: "Russia does not have as many missiles as our people have a desire to live."

Zelensky also condemned the Russian blockade of Ukraine's ports amid weeks of inconclusive negotiations on safe corridors so millions of tons of siloed grain can be shipped out before the approaching new harvest season.

In other attacks in the south, Ukraine's southern military operational command said Sunday that two people were killed in shelling of the Galitsyn community in the Mykolaiv region and that shelling of the Bashtansky district is continuing.

Russia's defence ministry said seaborne missiles destroyed a plant in Mykolaiv city where Western-supplied howitzers and armoured vehicles were stored.

Western-supplied heavy weapons are reaching front lines, but Ukraine's leaders have insisted for weeks that they need more arms and they need them sooner.

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