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Ukrainian front lines and nuke plant engulfed in fighting

The Russo-Ukrainian war is escalating as fighting rages along the front lines and over Europe's largest nuclear plant. Russia is pummeling Ukrainian cities and towns, but Ukraine is hitting back with strikes on Russian ammunition depots and strategic infrastructure.

(CN) — Heavy fighting and the shelling of cities were reported Friday across the war zone in Ukraine and military and political battles raged over control of a nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, raising the specter of a nuclear disaster.

Since Wednesday, Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city near the northeastern border with Russia, has come under heavy shelling. By Friday morning, there were more reports of explosions during the night.

Russia is both seeking to seize the important city, which in the past has had deep pockets of pro-Russian support, and likely eager to keep Ukrainian forces tied up in the city's defense. Kharkiv has come under regular fire from the outset of the invasion.

The death toll from this week's strikes on buildings in Kharkiv's Saltivskyi and Slobidskyi districts rose to 21 after rescuers found more bodies under rubble, according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian news agency. More than 40 people were wounded.

Russia's Ministry of Defense claimed the strikes killed more than 90 soldiers in Kharkiv, but Ukraine said the attacks killed civilians. Ukrainian officials say more than 1,020 civilians have been killed in Kharkiv. Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch accused Russia of indiscriminately attacking civilian infrastructure and using banned cluster bombs. Amnesty International, meanwhile, issued a report accusing Ukrainian forces of using civilian buildings to hide in.

On Friday, Russia also hit the small cities of Kryvyi Rih, Synelnykove, and Nikopol in Dnipropetrovsk, a region in south-central Ukraine. At least one man was killed in Kryvyi Rih, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine reported other strikes on Mykolaiv on the Black Sea and on Chernihiv and Sumy, northern regions close to the Russian border and east of Kyiv.

Dnipropetrovsk and neighboring southern regions are turning into a new major front line as fighting rages between Ukrainian and Russian forces over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station. The battles in this region are escalating as Ukraine seeks to mount a counteroffensive and regain control of parts of southern Ukraine it has lost.

The nuclear plant is now the focus of international attention because of the potential of a nuclear disaster there. Both sides accuse the other of shelling the facility and seeking to provoke a catastrophe.

Intense negotiations are taking place between various actors – including the United Nations, Ukraine, the United States, Russia, Turkey and France – to allow international inspectors into the Zaporizhzhia facility.

Ukraine accuses Russia of seeking to disconnect the power plant from Ukraine's power grid and then stop supplying energy to parts of Ukraine not under its control. Russia says it may be forced to close the plant due to Ukrainian shelling. The situation at Zaporizhzhia is chaotic and made worse by conflicting reports.

The plant is being run by workers with Ukraine's atomic energy agency, Energoatom, but Russian nuclear experts and military are in control of its operations. There have been reports of Energoatom workers being kidnapped and of the facility being operated dangerously.

The plant has been under Moscow's control since March 4. It was seized early in the invasion when Russian forces, amassed in Crimea, quickly swept across large portions of southern Ukraine and seized the cities of Kherson, Melitopol, Berdiansk and, eventually after horrific street fighting, Mariupol.

That opening phase of the invasion gave Russia control over the Sea of Azov and allowed it to establish a land corridor between Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and the rest of Russia.

While fighting is escalating along the southern front, the worst combat continues to take place in Donbas, an eastern region of Ukraine that's been the theater of fighting since an armed insurgency rose up in 2014 against the installation of a pro-Western government following the so-called “Maidan Revolution” that toppled the government of Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

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Russia troops and Ukrainian insurgents reportedly were attacking all along this front in an effort to seize the entirety of the Donetsk region. Heavy fighting was reported in numerous places. More than 100,000 troops are estimated to be engaged in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, making it the scene of the biggest battles since the end of World War II in Europe.

Ukraine is not entirely in a defensive mode.

On Friday, it claimed to have once again struck the strategic Kahovka bridge at Kherson, a blow to Russia's supply lines. Also, explosions were reported at an ammunition depot inside Russia near the border with Kharkiv and there were reports of explosions near a major airfield in Crimea.

Ukrainian saboteurs are apparently active in Crimea and likely were behind recent explosions that left a Russian military airfield heavily damaged. On Thursday, Russia reported shooting down a drone in Crimea and activating its air defense system in Kerch, where Russia built a strategic bridge across the Kerch Strait after annexing Crimea. Another object, possibly a Ukrainian drone, was shot down over Crimea on Friday, Russian media reported.

Russia has cited accidents as the cause of a string of recent explosions inside Russia and on Russian-held territory. Inside Russia, there have been numerous mysterious large fires and there is speculation they might be the work of Ukrainian agents too. The Kremlin may be seeking to downplay the explosions and fires as accidents to keep the lid on panic spreading among Russians, who are by and large told that Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine is going well and "according to plan," as Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted. Russian media is tightly controlled by the state.

Ukraine's leadership now openly talks about how it will retake Crimea through a military campaign. Such statements are highly provocative because Russia views Crimea as a legitimate part of Russia – the peninsula's controversial transfer from Russia to Ukraine took place under Soviet rule in the 1950s – and as an all-important military base because Crimea is home to its Black Sea Fleet.

Kyiv claims it can win the war as it puts into action more and more advanced Western weapons. The United States continues to supply Ukraine with a steady flow of weapons and Ukraine is pleading for more long-range missiles.

Russia alleges the attacks on Russian territory and Crimea are condoned by the United States. Washington has said it has not provided Ukraine with long-distance missiles to avoid them being used against targets inside Russia. The U.S. also says it is supplying Ukraine with the means to defend itself.

But Russia’s deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Ryabkov, told Rossiya 1, a Russian television channel, that recent statements by Ukrainian officials about hitting targets inside Russia are being made "not just under the blind eye of the US and NATO, but with the encouragement of this kind of sentiment, approaches, plans and ideas directly from Washington," according to RT, the Russian state broadcaster, which has been banned in Europe and the United States.

“The ever more obvious and deeper involvement in Ukraine in terms of countering our military operation, in fact, puts this country, the U.S., on the verge of turning into a party to the conflict,” Ryabkov said.

But there are signs of war fatigue too in the West, especially in Europe. Last month, Europe's commitments for new weapons to Kyiv dropped off and rising energy prices have battered the European Union's economy.

For now, though, the Russo-Ukrainian war appears to have entered a new bloody phase as both sides push to achieve their military goals before the colder months settle in.

Both sides are exhausted and are suffering immense losses, but neither Moscow nor Kyiv are backing down with both leaderships defining the conflict as an existential fight between good and evil.

The prospects of a ceasefire any time soon seem slim; indeed, rather than a cessation in the fighting, the war seems poised to only get worse with the potential to expand into a bigger conflict as Russia and its anti-Western allies – China, Iran, Syria, North Korea – test American power in hot spots in Taiwan, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Africa.

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

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