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After atrocities, many Ukrainians aren't interested in negotiating peace with Russia

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now in its third month. Stories of alleged Russian military atrocities have piled up. The toll of dead children continues to rise. And anecdotes of suffering among the civilian population continue to spread. All of this is pushing many in Ukraine towards an absolutist view - there can be no negotiated peace with the Russian government. NPR's Tim Mak has more from eastern Ukraine on how this affects the prospects for peace.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently acknowledged there was ultimately only one way to end the war.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) I think that whoever started this war will be able to end it. From the beginning, I have insisted on talks with the Russian president.

MAK: Even with the fresh Russian offensive now underway, Zelenskyy is thinking ahead to how this war eventually ends.

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ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) It's not that I want, it's that I have to meet him so as to settle this conflict by diplomatic means.

MAK: But among much of the Ukrainian public, pursuing diplomacy is a hard pill to swallow. We first met Iryna Stefaneko in the early days of the war. A medical doctor by training, at the time, she was appealing for more medical supplies. When we followed up with her more recently, the situation had become a little less bleak for the Ukrainian military.

IRYNA STEFANEKO: Mostly now I am feeling hope. I try to don't lose my hope for the future.

MAK: Fear had given way to guarded optimism, but sometimes...

STEFANEKO: Some time I can be angry.

MAK: Iryna is as humanitarian in spirit as they come, a soft-spoken professional who is seeking to alleviate human suffering in her country. But this war, the atrocities, the stories of life under Russian occupation, anecdotes of her personal acquaintances in those areas - all of this has crossed a line for her.

STEFANEKO: You can listen. I'm Christian. I understand that we must love people. We must be peaceful. But really, I am so angry. I really - I understand that now we must win this war.

MAK: Stories of Russian military conduct around civilians have built up a vast store of anger among the Ukrainian population, many of whom reject the idea of formal negotiations. Before the war, Vasily Busharov owned a factory that built garden swing sets. Since the invasion, he and volunteers in the city of Zaporizhzhia have turned that factory into a place where they manufacture body armor for soldiers on the front lines.

VASILY BUSHAROV: (Through interpreter) I think it's impossible to find a peaceful solution, and I think that hate and envy between the two countries and their people will go on more than 50 years, not less.

MAK: The broad impression that I've received in conversations all over the country is that the only exchange that Ukrainians want to have with the Russian government is through artillery shells and rifle rounds.

Borys Filatov is the mayor of Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine which is a hub for humanitarian and military convoys to the front lines. A popular politician, he's known for being outspoken, brash and blunt. But even he has to balance the popular distaste for negotiations with a reality that wars generally only end through talks of some kind.

BORYS FILATOV: (Through interpreter) I would say it this way - Russians always lie. They lie to the whole world, lie to the West, lie to their own people and lie to themselves. That's why we don't believe them at all. That's why we do not believe in those talks, although talks have to take place. Any war ends with peace and talks.

MAK: This is the difficult path that President Zelenskyy must navigate. With so much of the public dead set against formal peace discussions with the Russian government, it's hard to see how the democratic government of Ukraine can pursue it, which suggests that the prospects for peace are low, at least in the short term.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Dnipro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.