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As Russia destroys rail and fuel infrastructure in Ukraine, NATO chief warns of yearslong war

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned the war in Ukraine may go on for many months and even years, increasing the risk of a war between Russia and the Western military alliance. In Ukraine, both sides are preparing for a major battle over eastern Ukraine.

(CN) — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Thursday that the war in Ukraine may last months or even years longer, bringing much more destruction to Ukraine and raising the risk that the conflict could draw in Western powers.

“Be prepared for a long haul: This war may last for weeks, but also months and possibly even for years,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference at NATO’s Brussels headquarters. “Therefore we need to prepare for a long haul.”

The Ukraine war is building toward a new, decisive phase as both Ukrainian and Russian forces prepare for large-scale battles in Donbas, a flat region of eastern Ukraine and the theater of eight years of war between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces.

Russia is destroying rail lines, fuel depots and military infrastructure to prevent Ukraine from supporting some 60,000 troops at risk of being encircled by advancing Russian columns in the east.

“The battle for Donbas will [remind] you [of] the Second World War, with large operations maneuvers, involvement of thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes, artillery,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, told reporters ahead of Thursday’s NATO meeting.

“Either you help us now — and I’m speaking about days, not weeks — or your help will come too late, and many people will die,” he said. He added that the fate of his country depended on it receiving more “weapons, weapons and weapons.”

Following the NATO meeting, Kuleba said Ukraine will receive some arms, though not as many as he would like.

“I can only say one thing: Ukraine will have something to defend itself with,” Kuleba said, according to Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet. “I am cautiously optimistic about deliveries from some allies, but I am not optimistic that NATO as a whole will supply Ukraine with the necessary weapons in the foreseeable future. This may change, but so far I do not see it.”

The risk of the Ukraine war escalating into a larger conflict between NATO and Russia is growing.

“As long as the war continues there will be a risk for escalation beyond the Ukraine and that is exactly what NATO is focused on” preventing, Stoltenberg said.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin could end the war quickly by withdrawing troops, but he said that is unlikely.

“We need to be realistic and we have no indications that President Putin has changed his overall goal; and that is to control Ukraine and to achieve significant military victories on the battleground.”

He said Russian troops that have left areas around Kyiv are regrouping in order to launch a reinforced attack on eastern Ukraine. “We expect a big battle in Donbas, a big Russian offensive.”

On Tuesday, U.S. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, cited the growing risk of an “international conflict” as reason for NATO boosting its presence in Eastern and Central Europe.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is threatening to undermine not only European peace and stability but global peace and stability that my parents and a generation of Americans fought so hard to defend,” Milley, America’s top general, told American lawmakers. “We are now facing two global powers: China and Russia, each with significant military capabilities, both who intend to fundamentally change the rules based current global order.”

He continued: “We are entering a world that is becoming more unstable and the potential for significant international conflict is increasing, not decreasing.”

With an end to war nowhere in sight, the rift between the West and Russia continues to grow.

On Thursday, the United States succeeded in its effort to kick Russia off the United Nations Human Rights Council due to allegations that its soldiers have committed numerous war crimes, including torture, rape and civilian killings in Ukraine.

The vote was 93 in favor, 24 against and 58 abstentions. China was among those voting against Russia’s suspension; India abstained. Though the West and its allies are condemning Russia, many developing countries are maintaining relations with Russia despite its invasion.

The deputy Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Gennady Kuzmin, said the effort to remove Russia would set “a dangerous precedent.”

Kuzmin called it “an attempt by the United States to maintain its dominant position and total control to continue its attempt at human rights colonialism in international relations.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American ambassador to the U.N., said Russia has no place place on the council.

“Russia should not have a position of authority in a body whose purpose — whose very purpose — is to promote respect for human rights. Not only is it the height of hypocrisy, it is dangerous,” she said.

In 2018, former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Human Rights Council because he said it was a tarnished body that allows human rights abusers to sit as members and shield themselves from criticism. The Biden administration rejoined in 2021.

The U.S. also imposed new sanctions on Putin’s two daughters and on big Russian private and public banks used by a majority of Russians. The European Union, meanwhile, moved to impose an embargo on Russian coal and a ban on Russian-flagged ships and trucks.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was dismissive of the latest sanctions, calling them so weak that they would encourage the Kremlin to step up its assault on his country.

“This package has a spectacular look. But this is not enough,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. “If there is no really painful package of sanctions against Russia and if there is no supply of weapons we really need and have applied for many times, it will be considered by Russia as a permission. A permission to go further. A permission to attack. A permission to start a new bloody wave in Donbas.”

Zelenskyy wants the EU to ban Russian oil and natural gas imports and completely cut off Russia from the U.S.-dominated financial system.

With energy costs skyrocketing, Russia is making about $1 billion each day in such sales to Europe, a huge source of revenue that is propping up Putin’s regime. European leaders are increasingly talking about a Russian oil and gas embargo and urging their citizens to adjust to higher energy costs, for example by turning down air conditioning and donning sweaters.

On Thursday, the European Parliament overwhelmingly supported cutting off Russian energy imports, but many EU countries rely heavily on Russia and an embargo could backfire by sending Europe into deep economic trouble.

On the battlefield, fighting continued to rage in eastern and southern Ukraine, though no major advances were made by either side.

Courthouse New reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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