Russia continues to pound the Donbas region in Ukraine day after day with artillery and aerial raids. Slow but steady progress is being made towards capturing the industrial heartland of its neighbor.
It's now the fourth month of the conflict, and it's a high stakes campaign that could determine the course of the whole war.
Russia winning the battle of Donbas will result in Ukraine losing not only its land but also its largest military force. This could allow Moscow to seize more territory and dictate terms to Kyiv. Failure by Russia could lead to a counteroffensive in Ukraine, and perhaps even political turmoil for the Kremlin.
After failing to plan and coordinate its invasion of Kyiv, the second-largest Ukrainian city, Kharkiv, Russia now focuses on the Donbas. This is a region of factories and mines where Moscow-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Russia has learned from its mistakes and is now more cautious in Ukraine, using longer-range bombings to weaken the defenses.
It appears to be working: Russian forces are now in control of more than 95% and half of the Donbas's Donetsk regions, respectively.
According to Mykhailo podolyak, a presidential advisor, Ukraine is losing between 100-200 soldiers per day to Russia, because Russia has "thrown pretty nearly everything non-nuclear at its front." President Volodymyr Zeleskyy previously put the daily death toll at around 100.
Oleksii Reznikov, Ukrainian Defense Minister, described the combat situation in Ukraine as "extremely challenging" and made a reference to an ancient god of sacrifice by saying that "The Russian Moloch can devour human lives to satisfy his imperial ego."
Many thought that President Vladimir Putin would claim victory in Donbas after some small gains and then leave a conflict that had seriously damaged the economy and stretched its resources. The Kremlin made it clear that it expected Ukraine to acknowledge all the Russian gains since the invasion began -- something Kyiv has not ruled out.
The entire Sea of Azov coast is under Russian control, including the strategic port of Mariupol. Also, the entire Kherson region, which is a key gateway into Crimea, and large portions of Zaporizhzhia, are all Russian territories. Few people expect Putin to stop.
He made parallels Thursday between the Ukrainian conflict, and the 18th-century wars waged with Sweden by Peter the Great. Putin stated that "our task is to consolidate and take back" historical Russian lands as it was in those czarist days. Moscow has always considered Ukraine to be part of its sphere.
Russia seems to be more conservative than previous battlefield failures. It was expected to attempt to surround the Ukrainian forces from the south and north with a huge pincer movement, but it instead used a series smaller moves to force its retreat and not extend its supply lines.
Keir Giles is a Chatham House Russia expert and said that Russia was "concentrating all its artillery on one section of the frontline in order to grind its own way forward by flattening everyone in its path."
Western officials continue to praise Ukraine's ability to defend its country. They fought back with fierceness and used artillery in some areas, while retreating in others. Counterattacks were launched frequently.
Giles stated that Ukraine has pursued a policy of flexible defense and given ground where it makes more sense than holding onto every inch of territory.
An official from the West spoke under anonymity to describe the situation. He said that the Russian campaign is "continues be deeply troubled at every level" and noted that Moscow's forces take "weeks to achieve even small tactical goals like taking individual villages."
The Russians lost almost a whole battalion last month in an unsuccessful attempt to cross Siverskyi Donets River. They also failed to establish a bridgehead. Numerous armored vehicles were also destroyed and hundreds were killed.
The official stated that there is a "sense of strategic improvisation" and "muddling through", and predicted that the Russian military would reach "a point where they cannot effectively generate offensive combat force this summer."
Russia holds a clear advantage in artillery in Donbas because of its larger number of heavy howitzers, rocket launchers, and more ammunition. With the Russians continually targeting their supply lines, the Ukrainians had to be efficient with their artillery.
The Western allies have begun to provide more heavy weapons to Ukraine, including dozens of howitzers. They also plan to deliver multiple rocket launchers.
Putin warned that Russia could strike targets in Ukraine if it gives Kyiv longer range rockets that could target Russian territory. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia could also respond by seizing additional land to protect itself from such weapons.
Moscow's territorial gains in the South, which include the Kherson region and large parts of Zaporizhzhia, have led Russian officials and local appointees, to consider plans to either fold these areas into Russia or declare them independent like the "people's republics of Donetsk, Luhansk."
Western analysts and Ukrainian officials expressed concern that Moscow might try to push its offensive in the densely populated, industrialized Dnipro region further north. This could potentially split Ukraine and pose a threat to Kyiv.
Eleonora Tafuro ambrosetti, an analyst at the Milan-based Italian Institute for International Political Studies, stated that "Russian goals in the context of war are shifting in relation the situation on the ground."
She said that Russia could attempt to harm Ukraine's economy by seizing its entire coastline in order to block shipping access.
Russian General has already spoken out about plans to isolate Ukraine from the Black Sea. He proposed to seize the Mykolaiv, Odesa and Odesa regions to reach the border with Romania. This would allow Moscow to construct a land corridor to Transnistria, the separatist region in Moldova.
All of these ambitions depend on Moscow's success at the east. Kyiv would be in danger if it loses the Donbas, as new recruits lack the skills and experience of combat-ready soldiers fighting in the east. Also, Western weapons are not sufficient to stop a deeper Russian push.
Officials in Ukraine dismissed these fears and expressed confidence that their military is able to withstand the Russian advances, as well as launch a counterattack.
"Ukraine has a clear plan: Kyiv is trying to wear out the Russian army, trying to win more deliveries of Western arms, including air defense systems in the hope that launching an effective counteroffensive," stated analyst Mykola Sunhurovsky, of the Razumkov Center in Kyiv.
Philip Breedlove (retired U.S. Air Force General who was NATO's top Commander from 2013 to 2016) warned against any ceasefire that would codify Russia’s battlefield gains.
He said, "This is like raising two-year-olds." "If you don't allow bad behavior to continue, or worse, if you reward poor behavior, you will get more bad behavior."
Breedlove said that Washington failed to respond to Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. In 2014, Moscow took Crimea.
The West now has another chance to react after Russia has returned for more. He said, "How we end this war will determine, in my view, whether we see more of it in the future."
Lolita C. Baldor, Washington correspondent, Yuras Karamanau in Lviv Ukraine, Jill Lawless, Sylvia Hui, London, Frances D'Emilio, Rome contributor.
Follow AP's coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine