The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia pulls back from battered Kyiv region in major shift of war to east

A Ukrainian soldier eyes a soccer ball during a pickup game in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on April 2. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
11 min

Five weeks after Russian troops hurtled into the country in the hope of swiftly seizing the capital, installing a friendly government and subjugating Ukraine, the Russian military appears to be shrinking its goals to prioritize the east, redeploying forces that had been destined for the Kyiv region and attempting to organize reinforcements to compensate for the thousands of troops that have been killed.

The move represents a new and substantially different phase of the war as Russia withdraws its troops from battered northern and western areas to focus eastward, where it has already wreaked massive destruction and deprivation, most notably in the city of Mariupol, where as many as 100,000 people remained trapped in grim conditions.

The shift reflects a recognition in Moscow that Russia can no longer accomplish its original goals, analysts say. After making initial gains, its forces have stalled on most of the fronts they advanced on, and they have meanwhile suffered huge losses in terms of equipment and soldiers.

Washington and other Western capitals have expressed skepticism about Russia’s declared intent of refocusing on the east, with officials saying that Russia appears to be in the process of regrouping and repositioning its forces rather than limiting its goals.

And what lies ahead could prove just as bloody as Russia compensates for its failure to make significant advances on the ground by targeting civilian areas with missiles and airstrikes. It also sets up the likelihood of a longer war, at least than the one Russia originally anticipated.

But it also defers, perhaps indefinitely, the broader threat to Ukraine as a whole, fundamentally changing the nature of the war.

“Russia has lost the big war,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. “The big war is over”

The pullback has provided a clearer picture of the human suffering the Russians are leaving in their wake in areas near Kyiv. Video posted to social media Saturday and verified by The Washington Post showed at least nine people, including a child, laying in the street of a single neighborhood in the town of Bucha, northwest of the capital. Some of the dead were huddled together on the side of the road.

Kyiv’s suburbs bore the brunt of the Russian onslaught, weathering the storm that was intended for the capital. In those small towns to Kyiv’s north and east, the Russian pullback was most visible.

In Irpin, a suburb once known for its riverside picnics and quick commute into the city, Ukrainian fighters had fought the Russians back block by block for weeks.

Bodies, rubble line the streets of Bucha following Russian retreat

At night, mortars and artillery shells rained down on the rows of quaint homes, some of which had been occupied by soldiers on both sides. Nearly every resident had fled. On Saturday, the few that had remained shoveled and swept debris from their yards and contemplated their first nights in their beds after relocating their lives to basements.

It was too early for most of the town’s former residents to contemplate returning, and officials — both local and military — have cautioned against it until thorough demining operations have taken place.

“After 25 days of nonstop shelling, the silence makes you uncomfortable,” said Ruslan Stepura, 44, a soldier in a volunteer battalion that defended Irpin. “But when it’s silent, it’s like a miracle.”

Now that the adrenaline had worn off, it was hard for him and others who had fought for the town to believe what they were seeing: a hellscape of shattered glass, burned-out cars and obliterated public infrastructure.

Voices from the siege of Mariupol

But there were also signs of a return to some sliver of a past life. “Traffic jams are coming back,” Stepura said, gesturing at a line of vehicles, some carrying civilians, waiting to enter the suburb of Bilohorodka, west of Kyiv. “Soon, it will be like it was before the war.”

Current and former U.S. government officials and journalists on April 3 described the apparent withdrawal of some Russian military forces near Kyiv. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Gone, at least for now, is the threat of a blood-drenched assault on Kyiv, along with Russian hopes of installing a puppet government, analysts say. It is now highly unlikely the Russians will be able to reassemble a force capable of seizing the capital any time soon, given the failures of the initial invasion, O’Brien said.

The scale of the losses inflicted on the Russian military so far leaves Moscow with few options other than to try to concentrate its forces on a smaller area, O’Brien said. Russia’s best hope now lies in capturing enough of eastern Ukraine to exact concessions from the Ukrainian government at the negotiating table, he said.

Whether the Russian leadership has given up its strategic goal of ultimately subjugating Ukraine isn’t clear, said Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine who is now a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. But the withdrawal from the Kyiv area suggests a recognition on the part of Russia’s military command that its army isn’t up to the challenge of the war it set out to fight.

“It’s an acknowledgment that their first efforts failed, that they don’t have the forces to encircle Kyiv,” he said.

The extent of the failure was evident as Russian troops began abandoning their positions in northern Ukraine over the past few days, leaving behind a trail of destroyed armor, littered belongings and charred, disfigured bodies, according to videos posted online by advancing Ukrainian forces and journalists.

Troops have withdrawn from key locations that they captured in the first days of the conflict, including the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the airport at Hostomel, which was intended to serve as a launching point for the push into Kyiv. Instead, Ukrainian forces pinned them down in Irpin, now under Ukrainian control, and the Russians never managed to advance any further.

The Ukrainians are attacking the Russians as they leave, inflicting more losses and making it hard to tell whether the Russians are withdrawing according to a plan or whether they are being forced to retreat, said Thomas Bulloch, an intelligence analyst with Janes, a defense consultancy.

It had been assumed that the Russians would leave forces dug in the vicinity of Kyiv to prevent the Ukrainians from drawing reinforcements for the new battle to the east, and to sustain pressure on the capital. It’s now unclear whether they even intend to do that, or whether a force large enough to defend itself will remain, he said.

“There’s no question that they’re withdrawing now and it looks like it’s going to be bigger than we first expected,” he said.

Much will now depend on the extent to which Russia is able to replenish and reinvigorate the ranks of its shrunken force — depleted by as many as 40,000 soldiers due to deaths, injuries, captures and surrenders, according to a senior NATO official, and more according to the Ukrainians.

The military is in the process of calling up new conscripts, which could add 100,000 more soldiers to its ranks. It is also generating 10 new battalion tactical groups, the core fighting 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 the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects.

Of the 120 battalion tactical groups that went into action in Ukraine, at least 20 have been rendered inoperative by losses of men and equipment, he said — a figure likely to be higher since the Ukrainian advances in recent days.

The new troops are being drawn from the Kaliningrad oblast adjoining Poland, the Far East and Georgia, and all the available evidence suggests they will be sent to the Donbas, with the goal of taking control of the portion of the region that wasn’t captured by Russian forces in 2014, the official said.

Russia is also expected to sustain pressure on the other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine that it captured in the first days of the war, including Kharkiv and the strip of territory running along the coast that links Donbas to the annexed peninsula of Crimea. Russia will probably eventually take control of the besieged city of Mariupol, which will free up thousands of troops to fight elsewhere.

By concentrating its firepower on a limited area, Russia should be able to muster a more effective force, said Bulloch. It will also help them address the logistical and supply problems that have plagued troops strung out along a vast front line around the country.

“It positions them better for a longer war because by concentrating their forces in a smaller area they can do more sustained operations,” he said.

But it’s not certain that Russia has the capacity even to fully pursue its goals in the east, some experts believe. Ukrainian forces have been making advances in Kharkiv and elsewhere in the south and east, and will probably continue to inflict losses on Russian forces as they seek to regroup.

The 190,000 troops that launched the initial invasion included 75 percent of the country’s combat-ready troops, according to the Pentagon, and the replacements won’t be as capable or well trained as those, the Western official said.

The troops being withdrawn from northern Ukraine are unlikely to be more effective in a new location than they were in the initial invasion, said John Spencer, who chairs the Urban Warfare Studies program at the Madison Policy Forum.

“These forces are exhausted,” he said. “Soldiers can’t keep up this level of losses and sustain the pace. They are demoralized, they have wounds, mental injuries, they’ve lost their friends, you can’t just throw them into another fight.”

“It’s not going to be a cakewalk,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, Chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, a geopolitical think tank, noting that some of Ukraine’s best trained and battle-hardened troops are located in the Donbas, where they have been holding Russian-backed forces at bay for the past eight years.

It’s also not going to be easy for Russia to justify a more limited goal to the Russian public, he said.

“This is going to be a huge political problem for them because the costs they’ve incurred in this war, the economic and political isolation they’re suffering in addition to the military losses, are just not worth it for the Donbas,” he said. “It’s one thing to say you’re fighting for Ukraine. It’s another thing to say, we’ll settle for Donbas and try to sell it to the domestic market.”

Indeed, Russia’s withdrawal from some regions has ignited strong opposition from hard-liners in state television and Telegram channels, with many, including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, arguing that Russia should fight on and seize control of Kyiv.

After the stall of Russia’s advance, Moscow’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine agreed to de-escalate the war around Kyiv and Chernihiv and to focus on the eastern Donbas region, prominent state television anchor Vladimir Solovyov, complained.

“Don’t mislead and demoralize our people and our troops with crazy messages,” he said, referring to talk of “de-escalating” in Kyiv and Chernihiv.

Russia may be hoping that if it manages to take Donbas, it will be able at some future point to launch offensives to take a broader swathe of the country. But that seems unfeasible given the losses it has suffered so far, O’Brien said.

“Theoretically they can try again, but it would take a major new army. This army does not have the strength,” he said.

Lee questioned whether Russia can afford to sustain a protracted conflict, given the toll that sanctions will take on its economy and the scale of the military losses it has incurred. The longer the war goes on, the greater the damage to Russia’s overall strategic standing and ability to defend itself from other threats elsewhere, he said.

The war is far from over, cautioned said Iuliaa Mendel, a former spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking from Lviv. Ukrainians are braced for all eventualities, she said.

“This phase could go on for a while,” she said. “Russia has a lot of missiles and rockets and still has a lot of soldiers.”

But the withdrawal from Kyiv and the shift in the direction of the war has lifted 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 contributed from Irpin, Ukraine. David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine, and Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.