Ukrainian officials say major fighting is underway in the east of the country, with heavy shelling reported throughout the Donbas region, ahead of what they are warning may be a major Russian offensive.
Here's what we know about the situation in the east:
- Russian troops redeployed: The UK's Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence report Russian troops have “fully withdrawn” from northern Ukraine to Belarus and Russia, and many could be transferred to eastern Ukraine to fight in the Donbas region.
- Battle akin to WW2: Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said “the battle for Donbas ” is underway and will be reminiscent of World War II. It “has not reached its maximum scale," he said, warning the offensive will involve "thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes, artillery."
- "Significant battle" ahead: Echoing those words, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said there’s a battle ahead in southeastern Ukraine as Russia has refocused its war efforts there.
“They've managed to defeat the Russian onslaught on to Kyiv, but there is a significant battle yet ahead down in the southeast, down around the Donbas-Donetsk region where the Russians intend to get mass forces and continue their assault,” Milley said.
- The next target of the invasion: Ukrainian military officials say they have observed a buildup of Russian forces to the east. Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to the Interior Minister, said the destruction of cities in the area of Rubizhne and Popasna in the Luhansk region is ongoing. And recent advances by Russian forces around Kharkiv could be setting the stage for the eastern city of Sloviansk to become the next target of Russia's offensive, said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
- US intelligence: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US is providing intelligence to Ukrainian forces to conduct operations in the Donbas region. It is significant because it's the first time a US official has publicly acknowledged the US role in Ukraine’s operations in the contested region.
- Luhansk hospitals destroyed: The head of the Luhansk state administration said Thursday that all medical institutions and hospitals in the Luhansk region have been destroyed by the Russian forces. In the same post, the leader Sergey Gaidai posted several pictures of the damaged Rubizhne hospital, a medical facility that was "new" and filled with "high-tech equipment.”
- Blocking evacuation routes: The heads of the Donetsk and Luhansk regional military administrations have asked residents in some of those eastern regions to evacuate. However, Serhii Haidai, the head of the Luhansk regional military administration, said Thursday that Russian forces struck a railway overpass near Barvinkove, blocking an evacuation route for civilians from eastern Ukraine. He said almost 500 evacuees from Luhansk region are stuck at a train station. Three evacuation trains were temporarily blocked in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, both in Donetsk region, Haidai said.