WASHINGTON – The Ukrainians have launched successful but limited counterattacks in eastern and northeastern Kyiv, strikes that may have accelerated Russia’s withdrawal once it became clear to Moscow that its forces would not be able to take the Ukrainian capital, according to Western diplomats and independent military officials. Analysts.
These officials and analysts say the Russian withdrawal is real, a sign that Moscow’s initial strategy has failed in the face of serious planning failures, logistical problems, and fierce and effective Ukrainian resistance. But they cautioned that it would take a few days to ascertain what Russian forces were doing.
The new analyzes come after Pentagon and NATO officials initially raised skepticism about the Russian withdrawal, arguing that it might just be a repositioning of forces or an opportunity to re-equip and resupply forces in Belarus, away from Ukrainian attacks.
Frederic Kagan, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Ukrainian counter-offensive that began last week appears to have persuaded Russian leaders to change their strategy.
“The counterattacks may have prompted the Russian decision to abandon Kyiv,” Mr. Kagan said. The counterattacks showed that the Russians would in fact not be able to hold the positions they had occupied anyway. And so they made the decision to retreat in good shape instead of chasing after them.”
Analysts say the continued air and missile strikes on Kyiv and Chernihiv may be meant to cover up the Russian withdrawal and keep pressure on the Ukrainian government, rather than a renewed attack on Kyiv or other cities in the region.
Janes, an independent defense intelligence company, reported that several Russian units had withdrawn from Kyiv, heading toward Belarus. Guinness also reported that Ukrainian counterattacks had successfully reopened a road to Sumy, dividing one of the Russian fronts.
A European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss intelligence assessments, said that while it is difficult to know what Russia’s turnaround strategy will be, the initial signs are its new, narrower goals include expanding the amount of territory it occupies in eastern Ukraine, and possibly strengthening control over The southeast coast of Ukraine between Donetsk and Crimea, including the besieged city of Mariupol.
Kagan said that while officials and analysts expect Russia to move its forces into eastern Ukraine, it is unlikely that all forces withdrawing from Kyiv will redeploy there. Many of the forces assembled to attack the capital were inexperienced, poorly organized, and inept in battle.
“The forces around Kyiv are largely combative and ineffective, and we don’t expect to see those forces emerge with a significant fighting force in the east anytime soon,” he said.
Instead, units of the 1st Guards Tank Army, a more experienced and less damaged unit, are likely to be moved from near Kharkiv and then used in combat against the Ukrainian army in Donetsk, Kagan said.
Russian forces now appear to be pursuing a strategy to encircle Ukrainian positions in the east of the country, according to diplomats and analysts. The European diplomat said that the Ukrainians have so far kept their supply lines open, and that Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv could allow Ukraine to reinforce its units in the east.
Russia’s encirclement strategy could face major problems. To implement it, Russian leaders would need to extend their supply lines and reduce the strength of an already weak force, making it difficult to protect these supply lines from Ukrainian attack.
“The greater the force you encircle, the greater the forces required to do so,” Mr. Kagan said. “It would be very complicated. Currently, the Russian penetration itself is very weak. The Russian lines are also very long, and we have seen this movie before. They tried long supply lines from Sumy to Kyiv and that ended in tears for the Russians.”