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Ukraine war builds toward new big battles in east

After 135 days of fighting, Russian forces are focusing their attacks on the eastern region of Donetsk. Russian President Vladimir Putin warns Russia is only at the start of its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

(CN) — The war in Ukraine is building toward more big battles in the east where Russian forces are seeking to seize the entire Donetsk region while Ukraine is hitting back with newly acquired advanced weapons from the West.

Russian forces, combined with battalions from breakaway Ukrainian republics, are shifting their firepower on urban centers in Donetsk following the capture of the neighboring region of Luhansk. Together, these two regions make up what is known as Donbas, an area that was turned into Ukraine's industrial heartland by the Soviet Union. They are also home to ethnic Russians, many of whom are not opposed to Russian annexation.

While fighting remains fierce on the ground in eastern Ukraine, the ideological and diplomatic clash between the West and Russia continues to escalate as well with Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring that Russia will not be defeated and that “we haven’t started anything yet in earnest.”

Friday marked the 135th day of horrific fighting since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, declaring that a NATO-backed Kyiv and its anti-Russian far-right militants had become a security threat to Russia.

The West is seeking to pummel Russia with unprecedented sanctions and a huge flow of weapons to Ukraine. Western leaders accuse Putin of starting an illegal war to further his imperialist ambitions and reconstitute the Russian empire.

The growing economic and diplomatic clash between Russia and the West was on full display Friday in Indonesia during a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20, an intergovernmental forum of the world's richest countries. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walked out of the meeting after Western diplomats began a barrage of accusations.

“'Aggressors, invaders, occupants,'” Lavrov said. “We’ve heard quite a few such things today.”

Western leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, refused to take part in the traditional photograph of the assembled dignitaries because of Lavrov's presence. Western diplomats accused Russia of causing global food shortages because it is blocking Ukrainian grain exports.

“Russia is killing not only with bombs but also by deliberately taking advantage of dependencies and by using hunger as a weapon,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. “It is in the interest of us all to ensure that international law is respected and adhered to. That is the common denominator. And it is also the reason why we will not simply leave the floor to Russia.”

The G-20 meetings are being closely monitored as new fissures open up on the world stage due to the war. Many developing countries, including India, China, Brazil, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, have not joined the United States and its closest allies in shunning Moscow. Indeed, developing countries are actually increasing their ties to Russia, which is desperate to find new markets for its vast natural resources since the West imposed sanctions on its exports.

The animosities on display Friday in Indonesia foreshadow tensions that are set to get even more intense at a G-20 Bali summit in November when the heads of state are due to meet. It is not yet clear whether Putin will go in person or join the meeting via video.

In a speech to Russian lawmakers on Thursday, Putin issued an ominous message about Russia possessing far more military resources than it has already used in Ukraine, where the Kremlin officially says it is conducting a “special military operation.”

“Everyone should know that, by and large, we haven’t started anything yet in earnest,” Putin said. “At the same time, we don’t reject peace talks. But those who reject them should know that the further it goes, the harder it will be for them to negotiate with us.”

He said the West was seeking to “defeat us on the battlefield.”

“We have heard many times that the West wants to fight us to the last Ukrainian,” Putin said. “This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but it seems that everything is heading towards this.”

Ukrainian officials are showing no willingness to stop fighting either as they push to enlist as many Ukrainian men and women as possible into the military, including by restricting military-aged from leaving the country.

Ukrainian leaders insist they can turn the tide of war in their favor with new Western weapons, including medium-distance rocket launchers sent by the Pentagon.

In recent days, Ukraine has reported hitting Russian targets with its new Western weapons. But Russia too has boasted of destroying Western arms on the battlefield and in strikes on ammunition depots.

“Ukrainians are not ready to give away their land, to accept that these territories belong to Russia. This is our land,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN in an interview. “We always talk about that, and we are intending to prove it.”

Zelenskyy said the help from the West is crucial but that his country needs more weapons to defeat Russia.

“[The] United States are helping Ukraine, helping a lot, but it's not enough in order to win,” he told CNN. “The U.S. are a world economy and can help us with both arms and finances.”

He said he was confident that his country “will stay united and unified” and that Ukraine could win the war by the end of the year if it receives enough weapons.

“If the powerful weaponry from our partners will be coming to us on-time, and if good luck and God will be on our side, we can achieve a lot of things before the end of the year and we can stop this war,” Zelenskyy said. “We can stop the military part, at least, of this war.”

In recent days, Ukraine has tried to bolster morale by claiming Western weapons are destroying Russian command posts and other targets. Kyiv also has gone to great lengths to raise a Ukrainian flag on Snake Island, a tiny island off the coast of Odesa in the Black Sea that has been fiercely fought over since the outset of the war. Russia forces left the strategic island after days of heavy shelling by Ukraine. But Russia too has struck at Ukrainian attempts to control the island, which looks set to remain unoccupied for now.

Despite Zelenskyy's optimism, it seems that Russia has gained the upper hand in the war and that Ukraine's defenses have been seriously weakened and fallen in places along the eastern front lines.

Russian forces took control of Lysychansk in a matter of days and Russia's Defense Ministry claimed that more than 2,000 Ukrainian fighters were killed in battles for Lysychansk and the neighboring city of Sievierodonetsk.

There are reportedly thousands of Ukrainian prisoners of war and far fewer captured Russians. Figures on troop casualties remain unclear, but both sides have lost thousands of soldiers.

The war has inflicted horrendous costs on civilians, who continue to be killed on both sides of the front lines by Russian and Ukrainian shelling.

Russia is firing rockets at cities on the front lines but also far from the battlefields. Ukraine too is launching missiles at cities now under Russian control and at locations on Russian territory near the border with Ukraine.

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

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