Ukrainian army soldiers patrol the empty streets of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday.
Credit: Manu Brabo

KYIV, Ukraine — US Secretary of State John Kerry heads to the Ukrainian capital on Thursday for talks with the fledgling pro-Western government here, currently mired in an intensifying war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The leaders of Germany and France are also flying to Kyiv in an effort to help resolve the conflict. 

Their visits come as officials in Washington are reportedly considering whether to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to fend off a rebel offensive they believe is crucially supported by the Kremlin.

Debates have swirled in Western media over whether it’s a wise move.

On the one hand, it may provide crucial support for an increasingly embattled Ukrainian military, struggling under the weight of a brutal rebel offensive. On the other, it may only further embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s shown little inclination for backing off his moral — and, critics say, military — support for the rebels, even under the weight of Western sanctions.

There’s no telling yet just how serious US officials are about arming its ally here. But there’s no denying Ukraine’s 9-month-old war is only getting worse. Here’s why:


Civilians are dying by the dozens

It’s bad enough Europe’s newest land war has claimed more than 5,000 lives since last April, according to United Nations estimates.

Even worse, people are dying in eastern Ukraine in horrific and what seem to be more frequent and deadlier artillery strikes.

Last month alone saw attacks on two passenger buses — each of which killed more than a dozen people — and a rocket strike on a peaceful suburb of the port city of Mariupol, which killed about 30 civilians.

Even between major attacks, the civilian death toll continues to rise steadily.

Throughout the conflict, civilians have regularly found themselves in the crossfire as the two sides have lobbed artillery at one another from a distance, often using inaccurate weapons systems.

Both sides have blamed one another for shelling civilian areas and causing innocent casualties. While researchers have also blamed both parties in illegal attacks, they believe the separatists were responsible for two of the recent strikes.

“Many of the recent civilian deaths were due to violations of the laws of war, in particular the unlawful use of unguided rockets in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch said in a news release Tuesday.

On Wednesday, at least five people were killed in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk when a hospital and several nearby schools were shelled.

More from GlobalPost: This infographic shows how deadly the war in eastern Ukraine is


The rebels want more land


Ukrainian soldiers and a citizen help an elderly Ukrainian man during an evacuation of civilians in Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine.

The new round of violence erupted in mid-January as fighting escalated over the highly symbolic Donetsk airport, which separatists eventually overran. It’s part of what rebels themselves say is an offensive aimed at pushing Ukrainian forces farther back, possibly to the borders of the Donetsk region, a large part of which is controlled by Ukraine.

They claim their goal is to prevent the military from shelling civilian areas under separatist control. But Western officials have accused the rebels, with help from Moscow, of unilaterally violating a September agreement that established a buffer zone between them and Ukrainian forces. US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt has been among those critics.

The focus has now shifted to Debaltseve, a railway hub northeast of Donetsk that’s become the flashpoint for fighting. There, rebels are attempting to encircle Ukrainian positions in a move that, if successful, would provide them with a key transport connection between the two rebel territories and leave the nearby Ukrainian-controlled area to the north open to further rebel advances.

Here’s a recent map detailing the conflict’s hotspots, as well as the current de facto rebel borders, courtesy of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.


Both armies are getting bigger — or at least trying to

Both the Ukrainian and self-proclaimed rebel governments have called for mobilization to beef up their fighting forces.

Earlier this week, rebel chief Alexander Zakharchenko said he wants to increase his military to around 100,000 soldiers. But it's not a given that he can raise that many people, especially considering hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where fighting is taking place. It is unknown exactly how many fighters the separatists currently have, though a leader claimed last summer — when things got really bad — the number was around 20,000.

Even if the plan to mobilize is unrealistic, Zakharchenko’s call for more troops suggests separatist resolve is still strong.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials are hoping to bolster their own 200,000-man army with three waves of conscription this year. Authorities say nearly 50,000 draftees have already passed medical exams and are on their way into the military as part of the first wave, which started last month.

More from GlobalPost: Ukraine's war is getting worse, and not everyone wants to fight

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