KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A photograph shows a kneeling soldier hugging a child at a subway station, where Ukrainian families are sheltering from Russian airstrikes. In another, a baby and a woman who appear on the verge of tears watch from a departing train car as a man peers inside, his hand outstretched through the window in a gesture of goodbye.
In an uplifting Father’s Day message on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted 10 photos of parents and children against the grim backdrop of war, praising fathers who “protect and defend the most precious”.
There are scenes of childbirth, as a man and woman gaze up at a swaddled baby in what appears to be a hospital room where the stained walls show battle scars. In another, a man lifts a child over a fence towards a woman with an arm stretched on a train quay.
“Being a father is a great responsibility and a great happiness,” Zelenskyy wrote in an English text that followed the Ukrainian on Instagram. “It’s the strength, the wisdom, the motivation to push forward and not give up.”
He urged his country’s fighters to endure for “the future of your family, of your children, and therefore of all of Ukraine”.
His message came as four months of war in Ukraine appear to be straining troop morale on both sides, sparking desertions and rebellion against officers’ orders. The NATO chief warned that the fighting could last “for years”.
“Combat units on both sides are engaged in intense fighting in the Donbass and are likely to be experiencing variable morale,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its Daily War Assessment.
“Ukrainian forces have likely suffered desertions in recent weeks,” the assessment said, but added that “Russian morale most likely remains particularly troubled.”
He said “cases of entire Russian units refusing orders and armed clashes between officers and their troops continue to occur.”
Separately, Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate released what it said were intercepted phone calls in which Russian soldiers complained about front-line conditions, poor equipment and general understaffing, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.
In an interview published Sunday in the German weekly Bild am Sonntag, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “nobody knows” how long the war might last. “We have to be prepared for this 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 due to rising energy prices and foodstuffs”.
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 meet this week to discuss the situation. The head of Italian energy giant ENI said on Saturday that with additional gas purchased from other sources, Italy should get through next winter, but he warned Italians that “restrictions” affecting the use of gas might be necessary.
Germany will limit the use of gas for power generation amid concerns over possible shortages caused by reduced supplies from Russia, the country’s economy minister said on Sunday. Germany has tried to fill its full -capacity gas storage facilities before the cold winter months.
Economy Minister Robert Habeck said Germany would try to compensate for the decision by increasing the burning of coal, a dirtier fossil fuel. “It’s bitter, but it is simply necessary in this situation to reduce gas consumption,” he said.
Stoltenberg, however, pointed out that “the costs of food and fuel are nothing compared to those paid daily by Ukrainians on the front lines”.
Stoltenberg added: Moreover, 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 Russia and Ukraine continued to carry out heavy artillery bombardments on axes north, east and south of the Sieverodonetsk pocket, but with little change on the front line.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said via Telegram on Sunday: “It’s a very difficult situation in Sievierodonetsk, where the enemy in the middle of the city is carrying out round-the-clock aerial reconnaissance with drones, adjusting fire, quickly adapting to our changes.”
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed on Sunday that Russian and separatist forces had taken control of Metolkin, a settlement just east of Sievierodonetsk.
Bakhmut, a town in Donbass, lies 55 kilometers (33 miles) southwest of the twin cities of Lysyhansk and Siervierodonetsk, where fierce military clashes have raged. Every day, Russian artillery hammers Bakhmut.
But Bakhmut residents are trying to go about their daily lives, including shopping in markets that have reopened in recent weeks.
“In principle, it can be quiet in the morning,” said resident Oleg Drobelnnikov. “The shelling starts around 7 or 8 p.m..” Still, he said, the situation has been fairly calm for the past 10 days or so.
“You can buy food in small farmers,” said Drobelnnikov, a teacher. “That is not a problem. In principle, educational institutions, such as schools or kindergartens, are not functioning due to the situation. Institutions have moved to other regions. there’s no work here.”
Eastern Ukraine has been at the center of Russian attacks for more than two months.
On Saturday, Zelenskyy traveled south from Kyiv to visit troops and hospital staff in the Mykolaiv and Odessa regions along the Black Sea. He gave awards to dozens of people with each stop, shaking their hand and thanking them again and again for their service.
Zelenskyy, in a recorded address aboard a train back to Kyiv, vowed to defend the south of the country.
“We will not give in south to anyone. We will return everything that belongs to us and the sea will be Ukrainian and safe.”
He added: “Russia does not have as many missiles as our people want to live.”
Zelenskyy also condemned Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports amid weeks of inconclusive negotiations over safe corridors so that millions of tonnes of silage grain can be shipped ahead of the approaching new harvest season.
In other attacks in the south, the military operational command of southern Ukraine said on Sunday that two people were killed in the shelling of the Galitsyn community in the Mykolaiv region and that the shelling of the Bashtansky district was continued.
The Russian Defense Ministry said ship-borne missiles destroyed a factory in the city of Mykolaiv where howitzers and armored vehicles supplied by the West were stored.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was concerned “that a bit of Ukraine fatigue is starting to set in around the world”.
“It would be a disaster if Putin won. He would like nothing more than saying: “Gets this conflict, let’s make a ceasefire,” said Johnson on Saturday, a day after a surprise visit to Kyiv, where he met Zelenskyy and offered to continue his aid and military training.
Heavy weapons supplied by the West are reaching the front lines. But Ukraine’s leaders have insisted for weeks that they need more weapons and they need them sooner.
Sylvia Hui in London, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Srdjan Nedeljkovic in Bakhmut, Ukraine contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine