Ukraine is bracing itself for a major Russian offensive within weeks as Vladimir Putin bids to turn the tide of the war with a devastating three-pronged assault.
An advisor to Volodymyr Zelensky has revealed Kyiv is anticipating an attack from the north in Belarus, from Russian strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and in the south from the Crimean peninsula.
If successful, Moscow's troops would encircle the defending forces in the pincer movement which would drive back Ukraine after a series of advances in recent months.
US officials say Ukraine are planning on launching their own offensive against Russia after a stagnant winter, but have urged them to hold off until spring once they have received more weaponry.
The anticipated three-pronged attack would see Russian forces advance from Belarus in the north, the Donbas in the east, and Crimea in the south
US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley expressed strong doubt Friday that Ukraine would succeed in driving Russian troops out its territory this year.
At a US-hosted meeting on Ukraine in Germany, Milley told reporters: 'From a military standpoint I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all, every inch of... Russian-occupied Ukraine.'
Kyiv officials are preparing for the onslaught after winter brought a halt to the rapid change of territory control.
Rustem Umerov, a member of Zelensky's negotiating team, told the Daily Beast: 'Russians are encircling us from 240 degrees, attacking from the Black Sea, from Belarus and the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Fighting has already intensified in Zaporizhzhia, which had been stagnant for months, in anticipation of the assault.
Officials are expecting a pincer attack from the town and Kharkiv when Putin gives the orders for the simultaneous offensive.
'In the direction of Zaporizhzhia, the intensity of military activity has sharply increased,' the official, Vladimir Rogov, said on the Telegram social media platform.
Both Rogov and the Russian army said Moscow's forces had seized the village of Lobkove, around 30 miles south of the Ukrainian-held regional capital, also called Zaporizhzhia.
'Lobkove is ours,' Rogov said.
He added that Russian forces had fired at Ukrainian positions with 'tanks, mortar and artillery' in a dozen villages in the region.
The Ukrainian army said Friday that 'more than 20 settlements' had been attacked.
The West is battling over tanks after Zelensky appealed for more military support. Pictured: a German Leopard 2A6 takes part in NATO exercises
Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guards, border guards and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) at the border with Belarus today
Rogov had announced Thursday a 'local offensive' in the region near the town of Orikhiv.
He told the Russian state-run TASS news agency on Friday that this was 'not yet the storming' of the town, which lies southeast of Zaporizhzhia, but that fighting had reached its suburbs.
'Hills have been taken that determine fire control over Orikhiv and other settlements,' he said.
The front in southern Ukraine has been considerably quieter recently than in the east, with Moscow withdrawing from the major city of Kherson in November.
Ukrainian military spokeswoman Natalia Gumenyuk told local media that fighting along the southern frontline was 'difficult', including in Zaporizhzhia.
Colonel Oleh Zhdanov, a former staffer in the operational directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told The Daily Beast: 'It looks like they are planning a pincer attack from Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia directions, they will attempt to capture all of Ukraine's major defense forces.
'We are also watching Russian military constantly moving 10-12,000 men in Belarus. They are also reinforcing in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.'
Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for more tanks in order to stop the Russian 'evil' as defence leaders from 50 countries - including all 30 NATO members - gathered in Germany to discuss the next stage of support for Kyiv (pictured)
A person stands near a shell crater after a rocket hit near a kindergarten in Kramatorsk, Donetsk
Ukrainian servicemen ride atop a tank near the frontline town of Bakhmut, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk
Russia claimed its first major territorial gain in months last week when it seized the salt mining town of Soledar, which the Kremlin boasted as a crucial capture.
Taking control of the town allows Putin's forces to cut supply lines to Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, Moscow said.
But Kyiv and the West played down the town's significance, saying Russia sacrificed waves of soldiers and mercenaries in a pointless fight for a bombed-out wasteland.
Analysts said it offers little tactical benefit to the invaders for their overall goal of taking Bakhmut.
The Wagner Group of mercenaries led much of the fighting, propped up by Putin's criminal army of prisoners released to bolster numbers on the front lines.
Umerov said: 'They are coming from all directions, with three lines of fighting: criminals, private contractors, and regular forces. Their goals are to get rid of their criminals, to test and train their contractors.'
Ukrainian intelligence suggests the battle for Soledar was an exercise for a larger-scale offensive using the prison recruits to lead the troops into battle despite almost certain death, paving the way for the experienced fighters.
Senior US officials are urging Ukraine to hold off on launching their own major offensive against Russian forces until the latest supply of US weaponry is in place and training has been provided, a senior Biden administration official said on Friday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was holding fast to its decision not to provide Abrams tanks to Ukraine at this time, amid a controversy with Germany over tanks.
Zelensky pleaded for more tanks in order to stop Russian 'evil' as defence leaders from 50 countries - including all 30 NATO members - gathered in Germany to discuss the next stage of support for Kyiv today.
He accused Russia of wanting the power to destroy nations, insisting that 'the Kremlin must lose' the war not just for Ukraine, but for the whole world.
The war time leader's virtual address at the Ramstein Air Base came as Germany was accused of displaying 'unacceptable weakness' in the face of Vladimir Putin's on-going invasion of Ukraine, which is approaching the one-year mark.
The Ukrainians are seeking around 300 tanks to enable them to mount a counter-offensive against Russian forces, with the powerful German-built Leopard 2s - widely used by European armies - seen as the most suitable candidate.
The United Kingdom said last week it will provide Challenger 2 tanks.
The US and Germany have so far stopped short of granting Zelensky's requests for their most modern battle tanks, which the Kremlin warned would amount to an 'extremely dangerous' escalation if sent by the West.
But, speaking to reporters outside the conference hall at midday, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that while there was no resolution yet, 'we will make our decisions as soon as possible.'
Marina Miron, of the Defence Studies Department at King's College London, said tanks are useful but lots of factors need to be taken into account.
Those factors include how many tanks will be sent, what condition they are in, how Ukrainian crews will be trained, when the tanks will be delivered and how the Ukrainians keep them supplied.
A Ukrainian serviceman gestures while pulling a broken tank to a truck near the frontline town of Bakhmut
Sending tanks is 'more of a political gesture' than something that will change the complexion of the war, Ms Miron said.
Meanwhile, a Kremlin spokesman said the deployment of Western tanks would trigger 'unambiguously negative' consequences.
'All these tanks will require both maintenance and repairs, and so on, so (sending them) will add to Ukraine´s problems, but will not change anything with regard to the Russian side achieving its goals,' Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a media briefing Friday.
Today, Russia claims to have captured a village in its intense, months-long push toward the Bakhmut.
It comes as military analysts said tanks, which could be sent by Kyiv's western allies, would not be a magic wand in the 11-month war.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told a regular media briefing the village of Klishchiivka, five miles south of Bakhmut, has been 'liberated'.
Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guards, border guards and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) at the border with Belarus
The claim could not be independently verified and Ukrainian officials made no immediate comment on the claim.
Taking Klishchiivka would only be a minor breakthrough, but the Kremlin is hungry for good news from the battlefield after months of setbacks.
Bakhmut, on the other hand, would be a bigger prize. It could allow Russia to disrupt Ukrainian supply lines in the east and threaten other Ukrainian-held cities in the surrounding region.
The war has been largely static during the winter months, according to military analysts, except for some hot spots like Bakhmut and nearby Soledar.
The Kremlin's forces have kept up their long-distance shelling of Ukrainian targets, hitting key infrastructure and civilian areas while probing Ukrainian defences in the east.
On Friday, the Ukrainian presidential office said at least five civilians have been killed over the previous 24 hours, while six others have been hurt, as Russian forces shelled seven regions in the country's south and east.
Ukrainian troops have repelled Russian attacks near a number of settlements in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Ukrainian General Staff said in a report.
John Lough, an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the Ukraine battlefield situation is 'inconclusive', with a renewed Russian push expected in the spring.
The war is 'quite delicately poised', he said.