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.