(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.