By Pavel Polityuk and Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) -The war in Ukraine could last for years, the head of NATO said on Sunday, as Russia stepped up its assaults after the European Union recommended that Kyiv become a candidate to join the bloc.
Jens Stoltenberg said the supply of state-of-the-art weaponry to Ukrainian troops would boost the chance of freeing its eastern region of Donbas from Russian control, Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper said.
“We must prepare for the fact that it could take years. We must not let up in supporting Ukraine,” Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of the military alliance, was quoted as saying.
“Even if the costs are high, not only for military support, also because of rising energy and food prices.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who visited Kyiv on Friday, also spoke over the weekend of a need to prepare for a long war.
This meant ensuring “Ukraine receives weapons, equipment, ammunition and training more rapidly than the invader”, Johnson wrote in an opinion piece in London’s Sunday Times.
“Time is the vital factor,” he wrote. “Everything will depend on whether Ukraine can strengthen its ability to defend its soil faster than Russia can renew its capacity to attack.”
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Johnson stressed the need to avoid “Ukraine fatigue”. With Russian forces “grinding forward inch by inch”, allies must show the Ukrainians they were there to support them for a long time, he said.
Ukraine received a significant boost on Friday when the European Commission recommended it for candidate status, a decision European Union nations are expected to endorse at a summit this week.
That would put Ukraine on course to realise an aspiration seen as out of reach before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, even if membership could take years.
Russian attacks intensified on Ukraine’s battlefields.
The industrial city of Sievierodonetsk, a prime target in Moscow’s offensive to seize full control of Luhansk – one of the two provinces making up the Donbas – faced heavy artillery and rocket fire again as Russian forces attacked areas around it, the Ukrainian military said.
The military’s general staff acknowledged its forces had suffered a setback in the settlement of Metolkine, just southeast of Sievierodonetsk.
“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 Gaidai, the Ukrainian-appointed governor of Luhansk, referred in a separate online post to “tough battles” in Metolkine.
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 Izyum district, and Russian rockets raining down on a suburb of Kharkiv, the second-largest city, hit a municipal building and started a fire but caused no casualties, Ukrainian authorities said.
They reported shelling further west in Poltava and Dnipropetrovsk, saying on Saturday that three Russian missiles destroyed a fuel storage depot in the town of Novomoskovsk, wounding 11 people.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of Donetsk, the other province in the Donbas, said a civilian was killed and 11 wounded in shelling on Saturday.
The Ukrainian armed forces general staff said Russian troops on a reconnaissance mission near the town of Krasnopillya had been beaten back with heavy casualties on Saturday.
Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose defiance has inspired compatriots and won global respect, said he had visited soldiers on the southern frontline in the Mykolaiv region, about 550 km (340 miles) south of Kyiv.
“I talked to our defenders – the military, the police, the National Guard,” he said in a video on the Telegram message app on Sunday that appeared to have been recorded on a moving train.
“Their mood is assured: they all do not doubt our victory,” Zelenskiy said. “We will not give the south to anyone, and all that is ours we will take back.”
Another video showed Zelenskiy in his trademark khaki T-shirt handing out medals and posing for selfies with servicemen.
Zelenskiy’s office said he had also visited National Guard positions in the southern region of Odesa to the west of Mykolaiv. The timing of the trips was not revealed.
He has stayed mostly in Kyiv since Russia invaded, although in recent weeks he has made unannounced visits to Kharkiv and two eastern cities near battles.
One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated goals in ordering troops into Ukraine was to halt the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance and keep Moscow’s southern neighbour outside the West’s sphere of influence.
But the war, which has killed thousands, turned cities to 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 EU membership bid.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by David Brunnstrom and Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Grant McCool and William Mallard)