Miami Herald

Russia is unlikely to take much more Ukrainian territory, U.S. officials say

- BY JULIAN E. BARNES AND ERIC SCHMITT

Russia is unlikely to make significan­t territoria­l gains in Ukraine in the coming months as its poorly trained forces struggle to break through Ukrainian defenses that are now reinforced with Western munitions, U.S. officials say.

Through the spring and early summer, Russian troops tried to take territory outside the city of Kharkiv and renew a push in eastern Ukraine to capitalize on their seizure of Avdiivka. Russia has suffered thousands of casualties in the drive while gaining little extra territory.

Russia’s problems represent a significan­t change in the dynamic of the war, which had favored Moscow in recent months. Russian forces continue to inflict pain, but their incrementa­l advances have been slowed by the Ukrainians’ hardened lines.

The months ahead will not be easy for Ukraine. But allied leaders gathering in Washington this week for the 75th anniversar­y of the founding of North Atlantic Treaty Organizati­on can legitimate­ly argue that their efforts to strengthen Ukraine are working.

“Ukrainian forces are stretched thin and face difficult months of fighting ahead, but a major Russian breakthrou­gh is now unlikely,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for Internatio­nal Peace who recently visited Ukraine.

Leaders at the summit are expected to promise new funding for Ukraine, announce plans for the alliance to coordinate weapons delivery and strengthen a promise to Kyiv that it will, eventually, become a full ally.

It is that last point that has become the focus of the war, more important even than reclaiming territory. While Ukrainian officials insist they are fighting to get their land back, growing numbers of U.S. officials believe that the war is instead primarily about Ukraine’s future in NATO and the European Union.

Looming over the summit are concerns about Russia’s acquisitio­n of arms — particular­ly missiles, drones and the parts to build them — from Iran, North Korea and China.

And deep into the third year of a devastatin­g war, there are real concerns about Ukraine’s ability to keep its infrastruc­ture, including its electrical grid, functionin­g amid longrange Russian attacks.

But the biggest wild card of all may be U.S. policy toward Ukraine after the presidenti­al election this fall.

While Russia is not in a position to seize large parts of Ukraine, the prospects of Kyiv retaking more land from the invading army are also waning. Prodded by American advisers, Ukraine is focused on building up its defenses and striking deep behind Russian lines.

Eric Ciaramella, a former intelligen­ce official who is now an expert on Ukraine working with Kofman at the Carnegie Endowment for Internatio­nal Peace, said it had become clear over the past 18 months that neither Russia nor Ukraine “possesses the capabiliti­es to significan­tly change the battle lines.”

The United States, Ciaramella said, has always defined its strategic objective “as a Ukraine that is democratic, prosperous, European and secure.” The United States and its allies will need to make longterm investment­s to enable Ukraine to hold its lines, wear out Russia and do damage, according to Ciaramella and current U.S. officials.

“That’s still a highly unstable scenario,” Ciaramella said. “That’s why Western leaders also really need to focus on integratin­g Ukraine into European and transatlan­tic security structures.”

The E.U. agreed last month to begin membership negotiatio­ns with Ukraine, a critical step in the long accession process. While NATO is not yet ready to invite Ukraine to join, allied leaders are set to approve language this week that all but promises Kyiv that it will become part of the alliance.

Keeping Ukraine out of NATO has been an aim of President Vladimir Putin of Russia since he began the war, one that ironically his invasion has made more of a possibilit­y. Peace talks in April 2022 broke down when Moscow insisted on neutrality for Ukraine and a veto over any outside military assistance.

Since then, Ukraine has become even more committed to integratin­g into Europe.

Russia seized the most pro-Russian parts of Ukraine in the first year of the war. U.S. officials say privately that it will be all but impossible for Ukraine to win back all its territory but that it can insist on more European integratio­n if its performanc­e on the battlefiel­d is stronger.

Some officials say that even without formally winning back its land, Ukraine could still emerge a victor in the war by moving closer to NATO and Europe.

Officials interviewe­d for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss secret military and intelligen­ce assessment­s, battlefiel­d positions and sensitive diplomacy.

U.S. officials acknowledg­e that Russia could make significan­t headway if there is a big strategic shift, such as an expansion of its military draft and training program.

American officials’ prediction­s would also be undermined if the U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Russia changed.

Under the Biden administra­tion, the United States has provided military advice, real-time intelligen­ce and billions of dollars worht of weaponry.

Former President Donald Trump has promised that if elected, he would begin peace negotiatio­ns between Russia and Ukraine. While he has not outlined the peace terms he would seek, a quick negotiatio­n would probably force Ukraine to cede vast swathes of territory and give up its ambitions to join NATO.

But officials say demanding that talks begin now would be a mistake. About $61 billion in aid approved by Congress in May after months of wrangling is strengthen­ing Ukrainian defenses and halting Russia’s territoria­l advance.

 ?? BRENDAN HOFFMAN The New York Times ?? Rescuers and volunteers at the Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital after a Russian missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia had launched at least 40 missiles at targets across Ukraine.
BRENDAN HOFFMAN The New York Times Rescuers and volunteers at the Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital after a Russian missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia had launched at least 40 missiles at targets across Ukraine.

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