Russia stages attack helicopters at border in preparation for battle for Ukraine’s east

Forces appear close to reaching one goal

The Russians are staging attack helicopters at the border with Ukraine and bringing in soldiers and artillery, according to the Pentagon, as both sides furiously prepare for what is expected to be a bloody battle to control the vast plains of the country's east.

The preparations come as Russia appears to be further narrowing its war aims, at least for the moment, having pulled back from the north around Kyiv, the capital, after its forces were pummeled. With the sinking Thursday of its navy's Black Sea Fleet flagship, possibly by a powerful new Ukrainian missile, Russia may also have to scale back its immediate ambitions in the southeast, where analysts say it does not currently have the capacity to take the entire Black Sea coast.

Russian forces appear close to reaching one goal: capturing the besieged city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces who have held out for weeks against a punishing assault are largely holed up in the city’s port and a nearby steel plant. Its capture would establish Moscow’s goal of establishing a land bridge between Russia and the occupied territory of Crimea, but the heavy cost of the battle for the Russians - who took weeks to subdue the city even after flattening much of it - speaks to their military limitations.

Analysts and US officials fear that the fight for Mariupol is a harbinger of what is to come in the east - less of a lightening-fast war driven by special forces and more of a grinding, slower-moving war that seems to favor Russia’s bigger, better-armed military.

Missile factory

In other developments, Russia's Defense Ministry said it had struck a missile factory on the outskirts of Kyiv and threatened to increase the "number and scale of missile strikes against facilities" in Ukraine's capital in response to any "terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage" on the Russian territory.

CIA Director William Burns said Thursday that "potential desperation" to extract the semblance of a victory could tempt President Vladimir Putin of Russia to order the use of a tactical or low-yield nuclear weapon. The comments publicly voiced a concern that has coursed through the White House during the seven weeks of conflict.

The European Union, which this month banned Russian coal for the first time, is now likely to adopt a similarly phased ban of Russian oil, EU officials and diplomats said. Putin acknowledged Thursday that Western sanctions had hurt his country's vital energy sector.

Dmitry Medvedev, a senior Russian security official, said Thursday that if Sweden and Finland joined NATO, there would be "no more talk of a nuclear-free Baltics" region.

- This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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