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Zelensky’s Visit Reveals Strategy Divide Between Ukraine and U.S.

Ukraine will retake the fiercely contested eastern city of Bakhmut from Russia by the end of the year, President Volodymyr Zelensky predicted during his visit to Washington, an assertion that shows the gulf between Kyiv and American war planners who believe that Ukraine should be focusing more on the south.

Mr. Zelensky, at a meeting on Thursday with American editors, also predicted that Ukrainian troops would “de-occupy two more cities” taken by Russia. He did not say which cities he meant.

And contrary to expectations from military analysts in the West, Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine would fight through the winter, without a pause.

“We will do everything not to stop during difficult days, in autumn, with not good weather,” he said. “And in winter.”

By contrast, he predicted that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would pause operations because he has lost so many troops. “They’re dead,” Mr. Zelensky said.

Mr. Zelensky also renewed his plea for longer-range missiles. The Biden administration has been deliberating about whether to provide some of their limited inventory of Army Tactical Missile Systems — known as ATACMS — to Ukraine. Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine needs more missile capability.

“We don’t have another way out,” he said.

U.S. intelligence and military officials have long questioned why Ukraine has fought so hard in Bakhmut, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. In March, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said the city was “more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value.”

But Mr. Zelensky has been intent on trying to retake lost territory, and Ukraine has committed large numbers of troops and weapons to retaking Bakhmut and defending the surrounding Donbas region.

Some American officials say the fight in Bakhmut has become something of an obsession for Mr. Zelensky and his military leaders. The Ukrainians’ relentless focus on the city led them to believe that a possible victory was just around the corner, long after American officials had counseled them to move on to other targets because victory for either side would be pyrrhic.

Mr. Zelensky, at a meeting on Thursday with American editors, also predicted that Ukrainian troops would “de-occupy two more cities” taken by Russia.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

But Mr. Zelensky could be counting on the dysfunction in the Wagner mercenary group after the demise of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash last month. Wagner forces seized Bakhmut after months of bloody battle. With Mr. Prigozhin gone and the future of Wagner in doubt, Ukrainian troops could have an opportunity in Bakhmut, one American official said on Friday.

For his part, Mr. Zelensky pushed back on any notion that Ukraine was not making its plans deliberately, and said that his forces were following a “comprehensive plan.”

Those plans, at times, have divided Washington and Kyiv.

American military officials have wanted Ukraine to push to liberate the city of Melitopol, in the country’s south. While that has been a focus of recent drives, time is growing short for Ukraine to breach Russian defenses. Retaking Melitopol, American officials have said, would allow Ukraine to use short-range artillery to decimate Russian supply lines to Crimea, putting pressure on the Russian military stronghold there.

Some American officials have said that the Ukrainian counteroffensive appears likely to fall short of its strategic goals of cutting off, or narrowing, the land bridge between Crimea and the Russian border.

Russia’s minefields have proved a potent defense, and the Ukrainian government has been extraordinarily worried about the high casualties that would be caused by any effort to breach those barriers.

U.S. officials said it would soon be even more difficult for Ukrainian forces to sustain a drive forward as the ground becomes soft and muddy. Some officials say that within a few weeks, the Ukrainian army will need time to rebuild their stockpile of equipment and rest forces exhausted by the summer fighting.

But Mr. Zelensky rebutted such arguments, insisting that because Russian forces were looking for a break, his forces would not stop.

“I’m not the best person for military in the world, but I know what Putin wants,” Mr. Zelensky said. “I know that he needs pause.”

In a meeting on Thursday, President Biden told Mr. Zelensky that the United States would be “staying with you” in the war.

But a growing faction of the Republican Party has threatened to hold up aid, a move that Mr. Zelensky said could cost his country the war.

This was his second wartime visit to Washington, and he made appearances at Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the White House. Mr. Zelensky said Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, told him that the House would continue to “be on our side,” but that “it’s not simple.”

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