In Ukraine, the focus is on fighting, but are negotiations possible? :NPR | ET REALITY

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A wounded Ukrainian soldier using the call sign Flame waits to be evacuated after being injured in fighting near the eastern town of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on September 4. Ukraine has been waging an offensive against Russian forces since June, but has made only limited gains so far.

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A wounded Ukrainian soldier using the call sign Flame waits to be evacuated after being injured in fighting near the eastern town of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on September 4. Ukraine has been waging an offensive against Russian forces since June, but has made only limited gains so far.

Libkos/AP

When Volodymyr Zelenskyy is asked whether Ukraine should negotiate with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian president is direct.

“When you want to reach agreements or dialogue with someone, you can’t do it with a liar,” Zelenskyy recently told CNN.

Zelenskyy and many Ukrainians are quick to point out that Moscow has dominated, or attempted to dominate, Ukraine for generations. They say Ukraine’s goal is clear: expel all Russian troops, estimated at 200,000 or more, even if that means a protracted war.

However, Ukraine’s military offensive, which began in June, is making only limited progress against Russian forces who still control about 16 percent of Ukraine’s territory in the south and east. The front lines on the current battlefield have changed only marginally this year despite months of fierce fighting.

This raises a difficult question: Should the United States and other Western countries provide Ukraine with even more powerful weapons or try to lay the groundwork for a negotiated settlement?

Or maybe both?

“When this offensive reaches its limits, which will probably happen in a couple of months, when it gets murky, what do we do then?” saying Carlos Kupchanformer diplomat and national security official who now teaches at Georgetown University.

He was part of a small unofficial group that met discreetly this year with Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

He has been arguing that the American approach should be two fronts: reinforce Ukraine’s military, as it is doing, and also prepare for possible negotiations.

“Ukraine is suffering a terrible loss of life,” Kupchan said. “As a consequence, one has to ask: ‘Could it be better for Ukraine to try to achieve a ceasefire and begin the reconstruction process?'”

Kupchan has faced considerable opposition in the United States and Ukraine for raising the possibility of a ceasefire or a permanent agreement. According to polls in Ukraine, a large majority is willing to continue fighting with the goal of overthrowing all Russians, despite the growing number of victims, economic difficulties and destruction throughout the country.

Ukrainian troops pay their respects at the coffin of Ukrainian soldier Sergiy Yarmolenko in kyiv on Thursday. Yarmolenko was killed in recent fighting with Russian forces.

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Ukrainian troops pay their respects at the coffin of Ukrainian soldier Sergiy Yarmolenko in kyiv on Thursday. Yarmolenko was killed in recent fighting with Russian forces.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Ukraine offensive remains the focus

As a result, attention remains focused on Ukraine’s offensive in the south and east. The Ukrainians have made some progress over the summer, advancing a few kilometers here and there and recapturing several villages.

But they have not made a breakthrough that many had hoped for, as they face deeply entrenched Russian forces.

Ben HodgesA former general who commanded the US military in Europe, believes Ukraine could make significant gains in the coming weeks, before fighting is expected to subside in the late fall and winter.

The Ukrainians are inflicting damage on Russian forces behind the front lines, he noted, something that receives only limited attention.

“Every time a Russian train is stopped, a truck is destroyed or a bridge is destroyed, it becomes much more difficult to resupply Russian troops and artillery,” said Hodges, who now lives in Germany. “The Ukrainian counteroffensive is putting enormous pressure on the Russians.”

He favors additional weapons for Ukraine, including the ATACM, a US missile with a range of nearly 200 miles. This would allow Ukraine to carry out even more long-range attacks, further straining Russian supply lines.

The Biden administration, which is considering adding ATACMS to Ukraine’s arsenal, has provided or pledged more than $100 billion in general assistance to Ukraine since early last year, and is now seeking another $24 billion. Military aid makes up the bulk of those figures, but they also include funding for the government and humanitarian aid.

For now, bipartisan support for Ukraine remains

Most members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, have so far supported such aid. But the opposition is growing. Former President Donald Trump, as well as other Republican presidential candidates, are among the critics.

Hodges said that to maintain current levels of support in the United States, the Biden administration should more clearly define what success in Ukraine would look like.

Would it be an outright military victory for Ukraine, or something smaller, like a negotiated deal that could leave Russia in control of some parts of Ukraine?

When pressed, President Biden and his administration say they will support Ukraine “as long as it takes.”

Hodges finds that wording too confusing.

“We run the risk of losing some of what until now is very strong and effective bipartisan support,” he said. “That’s exactly what the Kremlin hopes: that the support will eventually disappear.”

Elbridge Colbya former Pentagon official, supports US aid to Ukraine, although he believes European nations should take the lead.

His main concern is that a long-running war in Ukraine will divert US attention from China and a possible invasion of Taiwan, which he considers much more important.

“There’s always a trade-off. You may not recognize it or know where it is exactly, but it will come,” Colby said. “My argument has been that Europe really has to take a leadership role there because of the urgency of the threat in the Pacific.”

As a group, European nations are providing substantial assistance to Ukraine, similar to the United States, although politically the United States has set the tone of the Western response.

Meanwhile, neither Russia nor Ukraine have expressed interest in negotiating. Russia annexed four Ukrainian regions and claims them as permanent Russian territory. Ukraine says it will not give up any land.

Charles Kupchan acknowledges that it will be difficult enough to start talks and even more difficult to reach an agreement. But he said it’s important to be prepared when an opportunity arises.

“It requires preparation and must be saved if, in fact, both kyiv and Moscow come to the conclusion that it is worth talking about,” he said.

For now, the focus is still on the fighting.

Greg Myre is NPR’s national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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