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After 240 days of war, battle rages over Ukrainian port city

The war in Ukraine may be reaching a new tipping point as Moscow and Kyiv pound each other, Western Europe lurches through a deepening energy crisis and the White House accuses Iran of being a party to the war.

(CN) — Battles are raging over the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, a strategic port city under Russian control that sits at the mouth of the Dnieper River on the Black Sea.

The battle over Kherson comes at a critical juncture in the Ukraine war with momentum building toward what could be major tipping points for Moscow, Kyiv, Washington and Brussels in the coming weeks.

Russia's war effort is scaling up dramatically with the mobilization of 300,000 reservists and the recruitment of its traditional ally, Iran, into the war. On Thursday, the White House accused Tehran of being a participant in the war. The West is beginning to impose new sanctions on Iran for its alleged supply of kamikaze drones and intelligence to Moscow.

While Kyiv and the West have seriously weakened Russia by cutting it off from the world financial system and foiling its war plans for regime change in Ukraine, the West too is showing signs of fatigue from a war that has dragged on for eight months and delivered punishing blows to the global economy and drawn a curtain across world affairs that many liken to a new Cold War.

Public concern in Europe and North America is spreading as the Ukraine war threatens nuclear annihilation and a 1970s-style economic collapse due to rising costs.

This week, Republican U.S. Senator Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, caused a stir with his comment that a GOP-led Congress after the November midterm elections would want to reduce the flow of aid to Ukraine. The United States has already sent Ukraine $16.8 billion in military aid and pledged billions more. This is the most the U.S. has ever spent helping a country militarily. The total bill of U.S. aid to Ukraine likely runs over $40 billion.

But it's not just American Republicans who are tiring of the war's costs, with their frustrations espoused by the likes of Elon Musk, the Tesla founder, and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

In Europe, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian magnate, is heading back into government in a far-right alliance and he rocked Italian politics this week with comments accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of starting the war.

Anger over the war's crippling effects in Europe is on the rise as an energy crisis deepens following the shutoff of Russian oil and natural gas. Russian energy has long sustained much of Europe, which is largely devoid of petroleum resources. Governments across Europe are being hit with strikes and protests prompted by alarm over dramatically rising energy costs.

All week, Russia has been evacuating civilians from the city in anticipation of major battles over Kherson, which has been struck by rockets for weeks and seen its bridges across the Dnieper severely damaged.

Ukraine is pressing in on the city from the west and north while Russian forces are digging in and preparing for an onslaught. Ukrainian troops have suffered losses already in attempts to advance on the city, giving Kyiv reason to pause its offensive.

Kherson is the capital of one of four regions Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to annex and turn into Russian territory. A Ukrainian victory in seizing the city would be a humiliating defeat for the Kremlin and a major boost for Kyiv, which has not yet retaken several cities captured by Russia, including Mariupol and Sievierodonetsk, since Putin launched the invasion nearly eight months ago on Feb. 24.

Russia meanwhile maintains control over the big cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region and Sevastopol in Crimea. These cities were taken in 2014 when Moscow first invaded Ukraine and seized territory following the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the so-called “Maidan Revolution,” an anti-Russian popular uprising.

Kherson, a city known for its shipbuilding and home to about 280,000 people before the war broke out, lies roughly in the center of Ukraine's southern territory with Odesa down the Black Sea coast to the west, the Crimean Peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea beneath it to the south, and Mariupol, a war-ravaged city on the enclosed Sea of Azov, off to the east.

There are fears of massive destruction in Kherson.

Earlier this month, Russia put in command of its war in Ukraine a heralded, but extremely brutal, general, dubbed “General Armageddon” for his scorched-earth tactics in Chechnya and Syria.

Since General Sergei Surovikin's appointment, Russia's tactics have indeed become even more brutal with waves of rocket and drone strikes on Ukraine's major cities and power plants.

By Friday, power outages were still reported in many parts of Ukraine following withering attacks over the past 11 days by Russia. Ukraine's defense ministry says Russia has fired more than 150 missiles and dozens of kamikaze drones over the past 11 days, a massive uptick in long-distance attacks.

Kyiv is hitting back too, of course, with its own shelling of Russian-held areas and continuing to strike targets across the border in Russia's Belgorod region.

The struggle over Kherson also has dangerously dragged into the fray two extremely important pieces of energy infrastructure: the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, Europe's largest nuclear plant, and the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, a river power plant located about 70 miles downriver from the nuclear power plant on the Dnieper River. The Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric plant is only 37 miles upriver from the city of Kherson.

Ukrainian forces have been seeking to capture the Zaporizhzhia plant since early August. Moscow accuses Ukrainian artillery of firing on the plant and claims it's repelled amphibious assaults across the Dnieper River by Ukraine. Russia is taking the plant off the Ukrainian power grid.

Meanwhile, farther downriver Ukrainian forces are getting closer to the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station.

On Friday, Zelenskyy accused Russia of seeking to blow up the hydroelectric station and unleash a torrent of water on Kherson. Moscow accuses Ukrainian forces of shelling the dam.

The hydroelectric station, built in 1950, is important for both Russia and Ukraine not just because it generates power but also because the Kakhovka Reservoir feeds water into the North Crimean Canal and the Dnieper–Kryvyi Rih Canal, which are used to irrigate large areas of southern Ukraine and northern Crimea.

The war's toll on the civilian population is rising along with the increasing brutality.

The United Nations office of human rights has recorded 6,306 civilian deaths and 9,602 civilians who have been wounded. Of those killed, 2,454 were men, 1,688 women, 197 boys and

164 girls. There remain 36 children and 1,767 adults whose sex is not yet known. The actual death toll among civilians is likely much higher.

More than half of the civilian deaths have taken place in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, two regions where an armed rebellion broke out in 2014 following the Maidan Revolution.

Kremlin-backed separatists in both regions declared their autonomy from the new Ukrainian pro-nationalist government in Kyiv. Ukraine's army and paramilitary forces fought Russian-backed separatists for eight years before Putin launched the invasion.

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

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