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Russia military officials claimed a new success in an offensive in the eastern Donetsk region as Ukrainian forces liberated a village amid a slow-moving, weeks-long counteroffensive that has worried some of Kyiv’s Western backers.

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The reports came on August 17 as NATO’s secretary-general said it was up to Ukraine to decide when to join any peace negotiations following the Russian invasion. Jens Stoltenberg’s comments appeared aimed at tamping down the furor that erupted earlier in the week by a senior colleague at the alliance that Kyiv ceding territory to Russia in exchange for membership in the military alliance could be a way to end the war between the two countries.

Two months into their long-awaited counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces have struggled to break through formidable Russian defensive lines in the southern Zaporizhzhya region and in the eastern Donetsk region.

Ukraine’s Western backers have trained and supplied as many as nine new brigades, with the hope that Ukrainian forces could replicate earlier successes against Russian troops, such as the defense of Kyiv in the early weeks after the February 2022 invasion, or two successful advances in Kharkiv and Kherson in late 2022.

That hasn’t happened, and without substantial battlefield success in the coming months, Ukraine could face mounting pressure from the United States or other Western allies to open negotiations with Russia.

Ukrainian forces claimed the recapture of Urozhayne, a village on the edge of Donetsk region, on August 16.

The claim could not be independently confirmed, though a Russian military commander and military bloggers appeared to corroborate the withdrawal of Russian forces from the area.

That would be first settlement Kyiv has retaken since July 27, a sign of the challenge that Ukrainian troops faces in trying to break through Russian defensive lines.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry on August 17 said Ukraine had lost four Stryker armored vehicles near Donetsk, as part of a Russian offensive push.

It’s first time Russia has claimed to hit the U.S.-supplied vehicles.

Russia controls nearly one-fifth of Ukraine, including Crimea, most of Luhansk region and large tracts of the regions of Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.

Earlier in the week, Stoltenberg’s chief of staff, Stian Jenssen, said Ukraine may have to give up territory to Russia as part of a deal to end the war. He subsequently walked back his comments.

“It is the Ukrainians, and only the Ukrainians, who can decide when there are conditions in place for negotiations, and who can decide at the negotiating table what is an acceptable solution,” Stoltenberg said, speaking at a conference in Norway on August 17.

Stoltenberg also said Russia’s nuclear forces remain unchanged in their posture, despite months of nuclear saber-rattling by the Kremlin.

As the war has ground on, Russia has regularly issued threats to use nuclear weaponry in Ukraine, something that has alarmed both Ukrainians and their Western allies.

“We haven’t seen any changes in their nuclear forces that trigger us to change our forces and the way those are arranged,” he said. “So far we haven’t seen anything that demands that from our side.”

At its summit last month, NATO said it would extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when “members agree and conditions are met”—a decision that was met with some disappointment in Kyiv.

In a meeting with military commanders on August 16, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine was ramping up production of aerial drones, which have played a major role in the conflict, for both Ukrainian and Russian forces.

He also suggested Kyiv’s Western backers needed to increase supplies of the devices.

“Drones are the ‘eyes’ and protection on the front line… Drones are a guarantee that people will not have to pay with their lives when drones can be used,” he said in televised remarks.

“In each combat brigade, warriors first ask about drones, electronic warfare, and military air defense,” he said.

With reporting by Reuters and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service
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