“Small cracks”: US-Ukraine military unity is slowly falling apart

The United States and Ukraine have largely been in sync since the administration of President Joe Biden pledged support "for as long as necessary" to resist Moscow's relentless invasion, Politico commented.

But more than a year after the war began, behind-the-scenes differences between Washington and Kiev over the aims of the war are growing, and potential flashpoints over how and when the conflict will end are emerging.

“The administration doesn’t have a clear policy brief and goal. Is it to push this thing, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin wants?” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. .

“Is it just give them enough to survive but not enough to win? I don’t see a winning policy right now, and if we don’t have one, then what are we doing?”

Publicly, there isn’t much of a rift between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, an alliance that was on full display last month when the US president made his secret, dramatic visit to Kiev.

But based on conversations with 10 officials, lawmakers and experts, new points of tension are emerging:

The sabotage of a gas pipeline at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean;
the brutal, draining defense of a strategically unimportant Ukrainian city;
and a battle plan for a region where Russian forces have been entrenched for nearly a decade.
Senior administration officials say unity between Washington and Kiev is strong. But emerging fissures make it difficult to credibly argue that there is little disagreement between the US and Ukraine.

For nine months, Russia has besieged Bakhmut, although capturing the southeastern Ukrainian city would do little to change the trajectory of the war. In recent weeks, it has become a focal point of the struggle, with soldiers and prisoners from the Wagner mercenary group battling Ukrainian forces.

Both sides suffered heavy losses and reduced the city to smoldering ruins.

Ukraine has dug in, refusing to leave the ruined city even at huge cost.

“Every day of defending the city allows us to buy time for preparing reserves and for future offensive operations,” said Colonel-General Oleksandr Sirsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces. “At the same time, in the battles for this fortress, the enemy lost the most prepared and combat-ready part of his army – Wagner’s assault troops.”

Many administration officials began to worry that Ukraine was expending so much manpower and ammunition in Bakhmut that it could undermine their ability to mount a major counteroffensive in the spring.

“Of course, I don’t want to downplay the tremendous work that Ukrainian soldiers and leaders have put into defending Bakhmut, but I think it’s more of a symbolic value than a strategic and operational one,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

For now, Kiev is ignoring Washington’s opinion.

Meanwhile, a US intelligence assessment points to a “pro-Ukrainian group” being responsible for the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline last fall, shedding light on a major mystery.

The new intelligence, first reported by The New York Times, was sparse on details but appeared to debunk the theory that Moscow was responsible for sabotaging pipelines delivering Russian gas to Europe.

Intelligence analysts do not believe Zelensky or his aides were involved in the sabotage, but the Biden administration has signaled to Kiev — much as it did last year when a car bomb in Moscow killed the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist — that certain acts of violence outside the borders of Ukraine will not be tolerated.

At times, there was also frustration with Washington’s arms deliveries to Ukraine. The United States has so far sent the most weapons and equipment to the front, but Kiev has always looked ahead for the next set of supplies.

According to two White House officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations, while most administration officials understood Kiev’s desperation to defend itself, there was also dissatisfaction with the constant demands and at times that Zelensky did not show appropriate thanks.

“I think the administration is divided, the National Security Council is divided” on what weapons to send to Ukraine, said McCaul, who is in constant contact with senior Biden officials. “I talk to a lot of senior military people and they are very supportive of giving them ATAX.”

The administration has not provided these long-range missiles because there are few spare missiles in America’s own arsenal. There are also concerns that Ukraine could launch strikes against distant Russian targets, which could lead to an escalation of the war.

The recent report that the Pentagon has blocked the Biden administration from sharing evidence of possible Russian war crimes with the International Criminal Court also dealt another blow to the narrative of unity. White House officials were alarmed when the New York Times article came out, fearing it would damage the moral case the US is making in support of Ukraine against Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The administration has finally said that the alliance between the US and its allies and Kiev remains strong and will continue for the duration of the war.

National Security Council spokeswoman Adriana Watson said the White House is “in constant communication with Ukraine as we support the defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” She added that with Putin showing no signs of ending the war, “the best thing we can do is continue to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield so that it can be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table when that moment comes.”

But the growing differences could portend a greater divide in the debate over how the war will end.

While Biden has pledged firm support and the coffers remain open for now, the US has made clear to Kiev that it cannot fund Ukraine indefinitely at this level. Although support for Ukraine is largely bipartisan, a small but growing number of Republicans have begun to express skepticism about using the U.S. treasury to support Kiev with no end in sight to a distant war.

Among those who have expressed doubt about support for the long-term perspective is House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who said the US would not hand over a “blank check” to Ukraine and declined Zelensky’s invitation to travel to Kiev and learn about the realities of the war.

“There are always some frictions built in,” said Kurt Volker, the president’s special envoy for Ukraine during the Trump administration. “Zelensky also got into it a bit with McCarthy – it turned out he needed to ‘educate’ him rather than work with him.”

Many observers, however, noted the remarkable transatlantic unity and hailed the union as holding firm despite the economic and political consequences of the war.

“I see the little cracks, but they’ve existed with points of disagreement and different views between the US and Ukraine even before the big February invasion and since,” said Shelby Magid, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “Zelensky has made sharp remarks about the US before, and the White House has disagreed with him – publicly and privately – on specific aspects, but this has not changed or undermined the overall US support and partnership.”

Crisis points still hover on the horizon. Zelensky’s insistence that all of Ukraine’s territory – including Crimea, which has been under Russian control since 2014 – be returned to Ukraine before any peace talks begin will only prolong the war, US officials say. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has signaled to Kiev that the eventual return of Crimea to Ukraine would be a red line for Putin, which could lead to a dramatic escalation by Moscow.

In addition, the Pentagon has consistently expressed doubts that Ukrainian forces – despite being armed with sophisticated Western weaponry – will be able to push Russia out of Crimea, where it has been entrenched for nearly a decade.

For now, Biden continues to stick to his refrain that the United States will leave all decisions about war and peace to Zelensky. But voices are beginning to be heard in Washington about how far that will be possible as the war drags on – and another presidential election looms.

“There has never been a war in history without setbacks and challenges,” said Rep. Jason Crowe (D-Colo.), an Army veteran and HFAC member. “The question is not whether Ukrainians have setbacks, but how they react and overcome them. Ukraine will overcome, defeat Russia and remain free.”

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