The move represents a new and substantially different phase of the war as Russia withdraws its troops from the affected northern and western areas to focus on the east, where it has already caused mass destruction and deprivation, primarily in Mariupol, while about 100 000 people remained trapped in gloomy conditions.
The shift reflects Moscow’s recognition that Russia can no longer achieve its original goals, analysts say. Having achieved initial achievements, its forces stopped at most of the fronts on which they were advancing, and in the meantime they suffered huge losses in terms of equipment and soldiers.
Washington and other Western capitals have expressed skepticism about Russia’s stated intention to reorient to the east, with officials saying Russia appears to be in the process of regrouping and relocating its forces rather than limiting its goals.
And what lies ahead may turn out to be as bloody as Russia compensates for its inability to make significant progress on the ground by inflicting missiles and air strikes on civilian areas. It also creates the possibility of a longer war, at least than the one Russia originally expected.
But it also postpones, perhaps indefinitely, a wider threat to Ukraine as a whole, fundamentally changing the nature of the war.
“Russia has lost the great war,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University in Scotland. “The great war is over”
The rollback gave a clearer picture of the human suffering that the Russians are leaving behind in the areas near Kiev. A video posted on social media on Saturday and checked by The Washington Post showed that at least nine people, including a child, were lying on the streets of one of the neighborhoods in the city of Bucha northwest of the capital. Some of the dead huddled together on the side of the road.
Kiev suburbs bore the brunt of Russian pressure, withstanding the storm that was destined for the capital. In those small towns north and east of Kyiv, the Russian setback was most noticeable.
In Irpen, a suburb once known for its river picnics and quick trips to the city, Ukrainian fighters have been battling Russians quarter after quarter for weeks.
At night, mortars and artillery shells rained down on the rows of quaint houses, some of which were occupied by soldiers on both sides. Almost every resident fled. On Saturday, the few who remained shoveled and swept garbage out of their yards and pondered their first nights in bed after moving life to basements.
Most of the city’s former residents were too early to think about returning, and officials – both local and military – warned against doing so until thorough demining operations were carried out.
“After 25 days of continuous shelling from silence, it becomes uncomfortable,” said 44-year-old Ruslan Stepura, a soldier in the volunteer battalion that defended Irpen. “But when silent, it’s like a miracle.”
Now that the adrenaline had passed, it was hard for him and others who fought for the city to believe what they saw: a hellish landscape of broken glass, burned cars and destroyed public infrastructure.
But there were also signs of a return to some shard of past life. “The traffic jams are coming back,” Stepur said, pointing to a line of cars, some with civilians, waiting to enter the suburbs of Belogorodka west of Kiev. “It will soon be as it was before the war.”
At least for now, the threat of a bloody attack on Kyiv, as well as Russia’s hopes of creating a puppet government, analysts say. It is now highly unlikely that the Russians will be able to reunite forces capable of capturing the capital in the near future, given the failures of the initial invasion, O’Brien said.
The scale of the damage inflicted by the Russian military so far leaves Moscow with several options other than trying to concentrate its forces on a smaller area, O’Brien said. Russia’s best hope now is to seize enough of eastern Ukraine to make concessions from the Ukrainian government at the negotiating table, he said.
Whether the Russian leadership has abandoned its strategic goal of finally subjugating Ukraine is unclear, said Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine who is now a senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies. But the withdrawal from the Kiev zone indicates the recognition by the Russian military command that its army will not cope with the challenge of the war with which it was going to wage.
“It’s a recognition that their first attempts failed, that they don’t have the strength to surround Kyiv,” he said.
The extent of the failure became apparent as Russian troops began to leave their positions in northern Ukraine over the past few days, leaving behind a trail of shattered armor, littered items and charred, mutilated bodies. video posted on the Internet by leading Ukrainian forces and journalists.
Troops withdrew from key places they captured in the early days of the conflict, including the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the airport in Gostomel, which was to serve as a starting point for pressure on Kyiv. Instead, Ukrainian forces squeezed them in Irpen, now controlled by Ukraine, and the Russians never managed to advance.
Ukrainians attack Russians when they leave, inflicting more damage and making it difficult to say whether the Russians are retreating according to plan or forced to retreat, said Thomas Bulach, an analyst at Janes, a defense consulting firm. .
It was assumed that the Russians would leave their forces in the vicinity of Kiev to prevent reinforcements by the Ukrainians for a new battle to the east and to maintain pressure on the capital. It is unclear whether they intend to do so or whether there will be forces large enough to defend themselves, he said.
“There is no doubt that they are recalling now, and it looks like it will be more than we expected,” he said.
Much will now depend on the extent to which Russia is able to replenish and revive its reduced force, depleted by 40,000 soldiers due to deaths, injuries, captures and surrenders, according to a senior NATO official and others to Ukrainians.
The military is in the process of recruiting new conscripts who can replenish their ranks by another 100,000 soldiers. It is also creating 10 new battalion tactical groups, the main combat unit of the Russian army, to replace some of those lost in the first weeks of fighting, said a senior Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics.
According to him, of the 120 battalion tactical groups that have taken action in Ukraine, at least 20 have been disabled due to losses of people and equipment, and this figure is likely to be higher after the Ukrainian offensive in recent days.
New troops are being withdrawn from the Kaliningrad region adjacent to Poland, the Far East and Georgia, and all available evidence suggests they are being sent to the Donbass in order to take control of the part of the region that has not been captured. by Russian forces in 2014, the official said.
Russia is also expected to maintain pressure on other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine it seized in the early days of the war, including Kharkiv and a strip of territory along the coast connecting the Donbass to the annexed Crimean peninsula. Russia is likely to eventually take control of the besieged city of Mariupol, freeing thousands of troops to fight elsewhere.
By concentrating its firepower on a limited area, Russia should be able to gather more effective forces, Buloch said. It will also help them address logistics and supply concerns that concern troops stationed along the broad front line across the country.
“It better positions them for a long war, because by concentrating their forces on a smaller area, they can conduct longer operations,” he said.
But, according to some experts, it is not certain that Russia is even able to fully achieve its goals in the east. Ukrainian forces are advancing in Kharkiv and elsewhere in the south and east, and are likely to continue to inflict losses on Russian troops if they seek to regroup.
The 190,000 troops that launched the initial invasion included 75 percent of the country’s combat-ready forces, according to the Pentagon, and the replacements would not be as combat-ready or well-trained as those said, a Western official said.
Troops withdrawing from northern Ukraine are unlikely to be more effective in the new location than they were during the initial invasion, said John Spencer, who heads a city war research program at the Madison Political Forum.
“These forces are exhausted,” he said. “Soldiers cannot contain this level of losses and keep up the pace. They are demoralized, they have wounds, mental traumas, they have lost their friends, they can’t just be thrown into another fight. “
“It will not be a walk,” said Dmitry Alperovich, chairman of the geopolitical think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator, noting that some of Ukraine’s most trained and hardened servicemen are in the Donbas, where they hold Russian troops. maintained forces for the past eight years.
Russia will also find it difficult to justify to the Russian public a more limited goal, he said.
“It will be a huge political problem for them, because the costs they have incurred in this war, the economic and political isolation they are suffering in addition to military losses, are simply not worth it for Donbass,” he said. said. “It is one thing to say that you are fighting for Ukraine. Another thing is that we will be satisfied with Donbass and try to sell it on the domestic market. “
Indeed, Russia’s withdrawal from some regions has sparked strong opposition from hardliners on state television and Telegram, and many, including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, argue that Russia must fight and seize Kyiv.
After the cessation of Russian advance, Moscow’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine agreed to de-escalate the war around Kiev and Chernihiv and focus on the eastern region of Donbass, complained the host of state television Vladimir Solovyov.
“Do not mislead or demoralize our people and our troops with crazy messages,” he said, referring to talks about “de-escalation” in Kiev and Chernihiv.
Russia may be hoping that if it manages to capture the Donbass, it will be able to launch an offensive at some point in the future to occupy a wider part of the country. But that seems unfeasible given the losses she has suffered so far, O’Brien said.
“Theoretically, they can try again, but it will take a big new army. There are no forces in this army, ”he said.
Lee questioned whether Russia could afford to sustain the protracted conflict, given the damage the sanctions would do to its economy and the scale of the military losses it has suffered. The longer the war lasts, the greater the damage to Russia’s overall strategic position and ability to defend itself against other threats elsewhere, he said.
The war is far from over, warned Yulia Mendel, a former spokeswoman for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking from Lviv. Ukrainians are ready for any opportunity, she said.
“This phase could go on for a while,” she said. “Russia has a lot of missiles and missiles and still has a lot of soldiers.”
But the departure from Kyiv and the shift towards war have lifted the spirits, at least in Western Ukraine, she said. “We feel we can win,” she said. “People are starting to talk about when they can go home.”
Sly reported from London. Max Bearak made his contribution from Irpen, Ukraine. David L. Stern of Mukachevo (Ukraine) and Claire Parker of Washington contributed to this report.