Battle for Kherson looms as Russia stages nuclear war games

STORY: Ukrainian troops at the front line said Wednesday they were expecting a bitter fight for the southern Kherson region - an area Russia appeared to be reinforcing.

The looming battle at the mouth of the Dnipro River could determine whether Kyiv can loosen Moscow's grip on southern Ukraine.

This Ukrainian soldier said Russian forces were digging in.

"The Russians are changing positions, our intelligence confirmed that they have been reinforced by very many recruits, that they are strengthening their flanks, they dug up trenches. They fear our air force, fear our artillery and soldiers."

In one section of the front, Ukrainian soldiers said Russian shelling was stepping up again after having tailed off in recent weeks. Radio intercepts indicated freshly mobilized recruits had been sent to the front.

As tension mounts, both Russia and NATO are holding long-standing annual drills of their nuclear forces this week.

But Russia has given the exercises a much higher profile than usual, timing it to coincide with its accusations that Kyiv is preparing to release nuclear material with a so-called "dirty bomb," an allegation the West calls baseless and a potential pretext for Russian escalation.

Russian State television broadcasts were dominated by footage of submarines, strategic bombers and missile forces practicing launches in retaliation for an atomic attack.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin its forces will be ready to respond.

"Comrade Supreme Commander-in-Chief, in accordance with the training plan for the armed forces of the Russian Federation, under your leadership, training is being conducted to oversee the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, during which the tasks of delivering a massive nuclear strike by strategic offensive forces in response to an enemy nuclear strike will be worked out."

Kyiv says Moscow has been brandishing the prospect of nuclear war to intimidate Western countries into withdrawing their support for Ukraine.

Since Russia began losing ground in a counter-offensive in September, Putin has taken a series of steps to escalate the conflict, calling up hundreds of thousands of Russian reservists, proclaiming the annexation of occupied land and repeatedly threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia.

This month, Russia launched a new campaign of strikes in what it calls a special military operation, using missiles and Iranian-made drones against Ukraine's energy infrastructure, also hitting parks and homes across the country.