During a secret visit to Ukraine by CIA Director William J. Burns earlier this month, Ukrainian officials revealed an ambitious strategy to retake Russian-occupied territory and open cease-fire negotiations with Moscow by the end of the year, according to officials familiar with the visit.

The trip by Burns, which has not been previously reported, included meetings with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine’s top intelligence officials. It came at a critical moment in the conflict as Ukrainian forces struggle to gain an early advantage in their long-awaited counteroffensive but have yet to deploy most of their Western-trained and -equipped assault brigades.

“Director Burns recently traveled to Ukraine, as he has done regularly since the beginning of Russia’s recent aggression more than a year ago,” said a U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the unannounced visit.

Its purpose was to reaffirm the Biden administration’s commitment to sharing intelligence meant to help Ukraine defend itself, the official added.

Publicly, Ukrainian officials have expressed frustration with critics of the pace at which the counteroffensive has played out thus far. But in private, military planners in Kyiv have relayed to Burns and others bullish confidence in their aim to retake substantial territory by the fall; move artillery and missile systems near the boundary line of Russian-controlled Crimea; push further into eastern Ukraine; and then open negotiations with Moscow for the first time since peace talks broke down in March of last year, according to three people familiar with the planning.

“Russia will only negotiate if it feels threatened,” said a senior Ukrainian official.

Whether Ukraine can deliver on those plans, on such a truncated timeline, remains to be seen. The CIA declined to comment when asked for Burns’s assessment of the offensive’s prospects.

Burns’s trip occurred just before the aborted rebellion by Russian mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin against Russia’s defense establishment. Although the U.S. intelligence community had detected in mid-June that Prigozhin was plotting an armed assault of some kind, those findings were not discussed during the meetings with Zelensky and others, the U.S. official said.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly emphasized that Washington and Kyiv had nothing to do with the failed march on Moscow, a rare challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States has characterized as an internal matter.

In an effort to reinforce that line, Burns made a phone call to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin, after the event and underscored that the United States was not involved in any way, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Zelensky and his military commanders, facing deeply entrenched Russian forces in occupied parts of Ukraine’s east and south, are under extraordinary pressure from the Western nations that provided Kyiv with billions of dollars in advanced weaponry and training ahead of the counteroffensive.

Ukraine has taken heavy casualties as its troops and armored vehicles navigate thick minefields and fortified trenches across wide-open territory. The challenging terrain has left troops vulnerable to Russian airstrikes and missile attacks.

Zelensky has acknowledged that the counteroffensive is going “slower than desired,” and officials have confirmed the destruction of some Western-provided Leopard 2 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

But Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has dismissed skeptics, saying the “main event” is yet to come, while the country’s top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, has called for patience, saying the offensive is being “carried out” as diligently as possible.

“Yes, maybe not as fast as … the observers would like, but that is their problem,” Zaluzhny told The Washington Post this week.

Military analysts say Ukraine’s goal of forcing a negotiation is ambitious given Russia’s fortified defenses, but not out of the question.

“It’s possible they can cut off the land bridge to Crimea, either by seizing the terrain or putting it within range of HIMARS and other artillery, but much depends on the level of attrition,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“If Ukraine sustains too many losses, its offensive could culminate early. But if Ukraine can inflict enough losses on Russian forces and equipment, and interdict the movement of reinforcements, Ukraine may be able to weaken Moscow’s defenses enough to achieve a breakthrough,” he added.

In preparation for the fall, Zelensky and top aides have begun thinking about how Kyiv can force an end to the fighting on terms that are acceptable to Russia and the Ukrainian people, who have been subjected to a year and a half of violence, forced displacement, atrocities, and food and electricity shortages.

In an ideal scenario favored by Kyiv, Ukraine’s military would gain leverage over Russia by advancing troops and powerful weapons to the edge of Ukraine’s boundary with Crimea — holding hostage the peninsula that is home to Russia’s prized Black Sea Fleet.

“If Ukraine has the capability to target additional important airfields, bridges, rail lines and logistics hubs, they can make it more difficult for Russia to sustain the war,” said Lee, the military analyst.

In agreeing not to take Crimea by force, Kyiv would then demand that Russia accept whatever security guarantees Ukraine can secure from the West, said Ukrainian officials.

Obtaining those guarantees, however, has been a tall order.

The Zelensky government has pushed hard for the United States and Europe to make firm commitments on Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the European Union — but the U.S. and Western European governments remain cold to the idea, more interested in offering pledges of long-term security assistance instead of the expansion of NATO, which risks a direct conflict with Russia.

The hesitance has frustrated Poland and the Baltic states, NATO member countries that are looking ahead to next month’s NATO summit in Lithuania, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western leaders have said they intend to provide a “very robust package” to Ukraine. Strong disagreements over the contents of the package threaten to project an image of disunity at the gathering.

But while U.S. and Ukrainian officials differ on the topic of NATO membership, they say there is broad agreement on Kyiv’s aims for the offensive.

“The U.S. agrees that Ukraine should enter the negotiations from a strong position,” said a senior Ukrainian official. “The U.S. is satisfied that our command does not do anything stupid, it keeps soldiers and equipment. The support is strong, and it makes our motivation higher.”

Still, signs of stress are abundant. While U.S. military leaders want to see Ukraine accelerate its offensive, Zaluzhny has begun venting that the West has not sent ammunition and fighter jets to the battlefield fast enough.

It “pisses me off,” Zaluzhny said, in response to complaints that the counteroffensive hasn’t progressed quickly.

White House spokesman John Kirby on Friday sympathized with Ukrainian complaints about weaponry, saying, “You can hardly blame them for talking to the world about additional support, whether that’s in quantity or quality of capabilities.”

He denied, however, that Washington would play the role of “armchair quarterback” from the sidelines.

“Where they go and how fast they go,” Kirby said, “that’s really going to be up to them to decide.”

Ukraine’s cautious approach in the opening days of the offensive is a sign of the challenge that lies ahead, analysts say.

“The problem is that Russia has emplaced a large number of mines, both in front of and behind the main defensive line,” said Lee. “Even if Ukraine can achieve a breakthrough, it will still take time to exploit. It may take weeks, it may take months.”

Understanding the Russia-Ukraine conflict

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