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Ukraine war escalation speeds up after Kyiv’s successful counteroffensive

As NATO's aid to Ukraine becomes more decisive, the Russo-Ukrainian war is quickly escalating and at risk of expanding even further. Both sides are pounding each other on the front lines, hitting civilian targets and accusing each other of war crimes.

(CN) — Following a NATO-backed counteroffensive that allowed Kyiv's troops to retake the northeastern Kharkiv region, the war in Ukraine is quickly escalating and openly talked about as a proxy war between Russia and the United States and its allies.

The war has been raging for 204 days and has left vast parts of Ukraine in ruins as Russian and Ukrainian armies fight across front lines that extend more than 1,000 miles.

More than 5,800 civilians have been killed and recent days have seen an uptick in civilian deaths as both sides pound each other with missiles and seek to sow panic and destroy critical infrastructure.

On Wednesday, Russian missiles struck a dam on the Inhulets Rivers that unleashed a torrent of water and flooded parts of Kryvyi Rih, a large city north of the southern front lines.

In a major counteroffensive led by NATO-trained Ukrainian forces and provided with NATO intelligence, planning and advanced weapons, Kyiv retook more than 3,000 square miles of territory held by Russian troops in the Kharkiv region, including the key strategic city of Izium, which lies immediately north of Donetsk, a heavily ethnic Russian eastern region whose fate is at the heart of the war.

It was a humiliating defeat for Moscow, though it appears Russia's defense ministry ordered troops to retreat because they were far outnumbered and at risk of being captured or killed. Western and Ukrainian military officials described Russia's retreat as “panicked” though the Kremlin called it “orderly.”

Both sides claimed inflicting heavy enemy losses – numbering in the thousands – in recent fighting after the offensive was launched. Casualties during a war are very difficult to independently verify. Regardless, both sides have lost tens of thousands of soldiers, according to military experts.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to Izium to be photographed with troops and boast about driving Russia's forces back.

“Earlier, when we looked up, we always looked for the blue sky. Today, when we look up, we are looking for only one thing – the flag of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said.

“Our blue-yellow flag is already flying in the de-occupied [town of] Izium,” he said. “And it will be so in every Ukrainian city and village. We are moving in only one direction – forward and towards victory.”

Despite Zelenskyy's confidence, there are few illusions about a quick Ukrainian victory.

Asked to comment on whether Ukraine's counteroffensive was a turning point in the war, U.S. President Joe Biden said it was too early to call it that.

“The question is unanswerable right now. It’s hard to tell. It’s clear the Ukrainians have made significant progress, but I think it’s going to be a long haul,” he told reporters.

On Thursday, combat continued to be fierce across the front lines with Ukrainian forces trying to push into Luhansk, a region bordering Kharkiv and north of Donetsk. Russia seized control of Luhansk in July. It and Donetsk make up the Donbas region, which has deep ties to Russia and large Russian populations. Russian forces, meanwhile, claimed small gains in their efforts to capture all of Donetsk.

Ukraine has a numerical advantage over Russia in terms of soldiers and military experts have said from the beginning of the invasion that Russia's invasion force of 200,000 troops was far too small to occupy a country the size of Ukraine. By comparison, the U.S.-led coalition sent 160,000 troops for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Iraqi's army was far inferior to Ukraine's, which has been receiving U.S. training and funding since 2014.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, the U.S. has sent Kyiv more than $15 billion in arms; U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere also have provided billions of dollars in weapons.

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Destroyed and damaged houses are seen in the recently retaken area of Izium, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

There were lots of holes in Russia's defenses of Kharkiv, a region that's not been the focus of fighting, and Ukraine made quick gains as Russian forces pulled back. Reports and evidence are emerging that numerous non-Ukrainian mercenaries, many from NATO countries, were involved in the counteroffensive too.

In response, Moscow seems determined to wreak even more havoc on its enemy and launched missiles against thermal power plants earlier this week and hit the Inhulets dam Wednesday.

Along with the fighting and retaking of Kharkiv, there are new reports of alleged war crimes. Ukraine claimed it found a Russian torture chamber in Balaklia, one of the first towns to come under Ukrainian control last week. Western reporters also began filing stories from the newly recaptured areas of alleged Russian war crimes, including kidnappings.

The Russian side too is claiming Ukrainian forces and agents are rounding up people deemed to be “collaborators,” punishing and even killing ethnic Russians and others who were friendly to Russian troops. Upon the advance of Ukrainian forces, thousands of civilians fled to Russia from the Kharkiv region, presumably because they feared reprisals from Kyiv's forces.

But as bad as it has been so far, the Ukraine war may be set to become even bloodier and more catastrophic as Moscow increasingly sees itself at war not only with an anti-Russian government in Kyiv but Western powers openly talking about the need to defeat Russia.

“Let us be very clear: much is at stake here. Not just for Ukraine – but for all of Europe and the world at large,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday during a State of the Union speech. “This is not only a war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine. This is a war on our energy, a war on our economy, a war on our values and a war on our future. This is about autocracy against democracy. And I stand here with the conviction that with courage and solidarity, Putin will fail and Europe will prevail.”

Her speech was seen in Russia as raising the stakes.

“If this is not a direct declaration of a non-hot war (despite the fact that the EU is already participating in a hot war – not only with money, but also with the supply of weapons and the training of the Armed Forces of Ukraine ), then what is it?” wrote Petr Akopov,a columnist at RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency. “Europe has officially accused Russia of threatening its future and waging a hybrid war against it, and promised to crush our country.”

He added: “Europe has declared Russia its enemy, which needs to be crushed: Economically by tearing apart our economy, by military means by defeating us on the Ukrainian battlefield, and politically by replacing our power.”

For Akopov, as with many in Russia, Ukraine and Europe are displaying a deep Russophobia that has a long history in Europe. Russian fears of invasion from the West run deep following attempts by many European leaders, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, to conquer Moscow.

Akopov said Europeans have long mistakenly seen Russians as a “threat from the East” and that the EU and the U.S. are trying to “tear Ukraine away” from the “Russian world,” to which he said Ukraine has historically belonged.

“Europe has become a threat to the unity of our people, a threat to our civilization, our future, but now it accuses Russia of threatening the European future!” he wrote. “Everything is turned upside down – Russia is trying to defend and return its own, and they say to it that it covets someone else's [land].”

The Russo-Ukrainian war's global ramifications – and the danger it could spiral out of control into a broader war – are becoming more obvious too as trouble spots in the South Caucasus, the Middle East, Central Asia and southeastern Asia flare up. In many of these conflicts, the U.S. and its allies are fighting against the interests of Russia and its allies.

This week saw Azerbaijan attack Armenia in a long-running war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Both countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union. More than 100 troops from both sides were reportedly killed in the fighting. Armenia is backed by Russia and Iran while Azerbaijan has Turkey and Western powers behind it.

In the meantime, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other European leaders have renewed calls to bring Georgia, Russia's neighbor on the Black Sea, into the EU along with Ukraine, Moldova and countries in the Balkans. A 2008 decision by then-U.S. President George W. Bush to expand NATO into Ukraine and Georgia played a major part in creating the conditions for war to break out in Ukraine.

Also this week, border clashes erupted between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two other former Soviet republics. Russian troops are present in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is building ties with the West.

In recent weeks, fighting and missile strikes have increased in Syria – a Russia ally and a country where Moscow has a military base. Israel and the U.S. remain involved in the Syrian civil war and the U.S. military has occupied parts of Syria.

In southeastern Asia, tensions remain extremely high between China and the U.S. over Taiwan and the Middle East remains extremely volatile as the U.S. and Iran are unable to revive a nuclear deal scuttled by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

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

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