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Fears of escalation grow as Ukraine war grinds on

The war in Ukraine is at a risky point as fighting continues over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and Russian military targets are hit in Crimea. The fighting has raged for 176 days.

(CN) — The war in Ukraine has entered a new bloody phase as fighting rages along heavily fortified front lines and both sides claim deadly strikes while civilian deaths continue to mount in a conflict that's dragged on for nearly six months.

The war is at a very risky point as fighting continues over control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, Europe's largest nuclear power plant. It is located on the front lines in southern Ukraine and its grounds have been struck several times by rockets in recent days. Each side accuses the other of wanting to cause a nuclear disaster to gain a military advantage.

Meanwhile, the prospects for a ceasefire any time soon seem dim. On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Ukraine for the first time since the war started and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Lviv.

Erdogan has positioned himself as an interlocutor between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy. Turkish media speculated that Erdogan presented Zelenskyy with an offer to end the war with a ceasefire and direct talks with Putin. But the talks were brief in Lviv and no breakthroughs were announced.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also attended the talks. Besides working to end the war, Guterres is trying to deescalate tensions over Zaporizhzhia and boost grain shipments from Ukraine to ease fears of global famine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres shake hands after their meeting in Lviv, Ukraine, on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

After 176 days of fighting, Ukrainian forces are holding out against Russia's brutal assault and have prevented major advances in several key areas, but their defenses are coming under immense shelling.

In recent days, Russian forces have stepped up efforts to capture Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, and launched rockets at at the city. On Thursday, reports said at least 12 people were killed when a residential building was struck.

Meanwhile, to the south Russian and pro-Russian forces are attacking with ferocity in the campaign to seize the entirety of the Donetsk region, one of two regions that make up the Donbas.

Following the overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president in 2014, Donetsk and Luhansk declared themselves breakaway republics and engaged in an eight-year war with Ukrainian forces. The inability to end the Donbas war laid conditions for Putin's invasion in February.

On Thursday, Ukraine's army warned that Russia was amassing stockpiles of missiles at the country's borders in anticipation of a new offensive, according to Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet.

Ukraine is raising the stakes too with apparent sabotage attacks inside Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed in 2014. Last week, several Russian aircraft were destroyed when explosions erupted at an airfield and this week ammunition depots were blown up deep inside Crimea.

The Kremlin was uncharacteristically muted in its response to the attacks on Crimea even though it has called attacks on the peninsula a “red line.” The Kremlin's weak response has led to speculation that Russia's military capacity has been seriously weakened.

Last week, Zelenksyy vowed that the war will only end with Ukraine's recapture of Crimea. On Thursday, presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak bolstered that claim by asserting that the 12-mile-long Kerch bridge that connects Russia and the peninsula needs to be “dismantled.”

The bridge was built after the 2014 annexation and served as the only land corridor between the peninsula and Russia prior to Putin's invasion. Since the invasion, Russia's capture of Mariupol, the port city on the Sea of Azov, connected Crimea by land to the rest of Russia.

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

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