The United States and Ukraine have largely been in lockstep since President Joe Biden’s administration pledged support for “as long as it takes” in resisting Moscow’s relentless invasion.
But more than a year into the war, there are growing differences behind the scenes between Washington and Kyiv on war aims, and potential flashpoints loom on how, and when, the conflict will end.
“The administration doesn’t have a clear policy objective and a clear goal. Is it to drag this thing out, which is precisely what Vladimir Putin wants?” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Is it to just give them enough to survive and not to win? I don’t see a policy for victory right now, and if we don’t have that, then what are we doing?”
Publicly, there has been little separation between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an alliance on full display last month when the American president made his covert, dramatic visit to Kyiv. But based on conversations with 10 officials, lawmakers and experts, new points of tension are emerging: The sabotage of a natural gas pipeline on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean; the brutal, draining defense of a strategically unimportant Ukrainian city; and a plan to fight for a region where Russian forces have been entrenched for nearly a decade.
Senior administration officials maintain that unity between Washington and Kyiv is tight. But the fractures that have appeared are making it harder to credibly claim there’s little daylight between the U.S. and Ukraine as sunbeams streak through the cracks.
For nine months, Russia has laid siege to Bakhmut, though capturing the southeastern Ukrainian city would do little to alter the trajectory of the war. It has become the focal point of the fight in recent weeks, with troops and prisoners from the mercenary Wagner Group leading the combat against Ukrainian forces. Both sides have suffered heavy losses and reduced the city to smoldering ruins.
Ukraine has dug in, refusing to abandon the ruined city even at tremendous cost.
“Each day of the city’s defense allows us to gain time to prepare reserves and prepare for future offensive operations,” said Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces. “At the same time, in the battles for this fortress, the enemy loses the most prepared and combat-capable part of his army — Wagner’s assault troops.”
Multiple administration officials have begun worrying that Ukraine is expending so much manpower and ammunition in Bakhmut that it could sap their ability to mount a major counteroffensive in the spring.
“I certainly don’t want to discount the tremendous work that the Ukrainians’ soldiers and leaders have put into defending Bakhmut — but I think it’s more of a symbolic value than it is a strategic and operational value,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Kyiv, for now, has ignored Washington’s input.
Meanwhile, an assessment by U.S. intelligence suggested that a “pro-Ukraine group” was responsible for the destruction of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines last fall, shedding light on a great mystery. The new intelligence, first reported by The New York Times, was short on details but appeared to knock down a theory that Moscow was responsible for sabotaging the pipelines that delivered Russian gas to Europe.
Intelligence analysts do not believe Zelenskyy or his aides were involved in the sabotage, but the Biden administration has signaled to Kyiv — much like it did when a car bomb in Moscow killed the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist last year — that certain acts of violence outside of Ukraine’s borders will not be tolerated.
There has also been, at times, frustration about Washington’s delivery of weapons to Ukraine. The United States has, by far, sent the most weapons and equipment to the front, but Kyiv has always looked ahead for the next set of supplies. Though most in the administration have been understanding about Kyiv’s desperation to defend itself, there have been grumblings about the constant requests and, at times, Zelenskyy not showing appropriate gratitude, according to two White House officials not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
“I do think the administration is split, the National Security Council split” on what weapons to send to Ukraine, said McCaul, who’s in constant touch with senior Biden officials. “I talk to a lot of top military brass and they are, in large part, supportive of giving them the ATACMS.”
The administration hasn’t provided those long-range missiles because there are few to spare in America’s own arsenal. There’s also fear that Ukraine might strike faraway Russian targets, potentially escalating the war.
A recent report that the Pentagon was blocking the Biden administration from sharing evidence of possible Russian war crimes with the International Criminal Court also put another dent in the unity narrative. White House officials were dismayed when the New York Times story came out, fearful it would damage the moral case the U.S. has made for supporting Ukraine against Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The administration definitively declared the alliance between the United States — and its allies — and Kyiv remained strong, and that it would last as long as the war raged.
National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the White House is “in constant communication with Ukraine as we support their defense of their sovereignty and territorial integrity.” She added that with Putin showing no signs of ceasing his war, “the best thing we can do is to continue to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield so they can be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table for when that time comes.”
But the growing disconnects may foreshadow a larger divide over the debate as to how the war will end.
Though Biden has pledged steadfast support, and the coffers remain open for now, the U.S. has been clear with Kyiv that it cannot fund Ukraine indefinitely at this level. Though backing Ukraine has largely been a bipartisan effort, a small but growing number of Republicans have begun to voice skepticism about the use of American treasure to support Kyiv without an end in sight to a distant war.
Among those who have expressed doubt about support for the long haul is House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has said that the U.S. would not offer a “blank check” to Ukraine and rejected Zelenskyy’s invitation to travel to Kyiv and learn about the realities of war.
“There is always some friction built in,” said Kurt Volker, a special presidential envoy for Ukraine during the Trump administration. “Zelenskyy also stepped in it a bit with McCarthy — coming across as needing to ‘educate’ him, rather than work with him.”
But many observers credit remarkable transatlantic unity, praising the alliance holding firm despite the economic and political toll the war has taken.
“I see the little fissures, but those have existed with points of disagreement and varied views between the U.S. and Ukraine even before the big February invasion, and since then,” said Shelby Magid, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “Zelenskyy has made pointed remarks before toward the U.S., and the White House has expressed disagreement with him — publicly and privately — on specific aspects, but that hasn’t shifted or eaten away at the overall U.S. support and partnership.”
Points of crisis still hover on the horizon. Zelenskyy’s insistence that all of Ukraine — including Crimea, which has been under Russian control since 2014 — be returned to Ukraine before any peace negotiations begin would only extend the war, U.S. officials believe. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has signaled to Kyiv that Ukraine’s potential recapture of Crimea would be a red line for Putin, possibly leading to a dramatic escalation from Moscow.
Moreover, the Pentagon has consistently expressed doubts whether Ukraine’s forces — despite being armed with sophisticated Western weapons — would be able to dislodge Russia from Crimea, where it has been entrenched for nearly a decade.
For now, Biden continued to stick to his refrain that the United States will leave all decisions about war and peace to Zelenskky. But whispers have begun across Washington as to how tenable that will be as the war grinds on — and another presidential election looms.
“There has never been a war in history without setbacks and challenges,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), an Army veteran and HFAC member. “The question is not whether Ukrainians have setbacks, but how they respond and overcome them. Ukraine will overcome, defeat Russia and remain free.”