Recent reports from the suburbs of Kyiv, Ukraine, suggest Russian troops are pulling back. Ukraine’s military is also winning back some regions east of the capital and in the Donbas region. Few would argue Putin’s expectation of a quick victory over Ukraine and the surrender of the Kyiv government has failed to materialize. Though outmanned, outgunned, and using hand-me-down, albeit effective, weapons from allies, the Ukrainian military and armed civilians have given Moscow’s invading troops a surprisingly tough fight. To such an extent, in fact, in many areas where fighting has been fierce, the Kremlin’s attacks are crumbling, and Russian units are withdrawing. But is it just a move to the rear to return and fight another day?
Most observers, defense officials, and analysts were skeptical of the Russian announcement that the Kremlin was pulling forces back ostensibly in deference to ongoing peace negotiations. Instead, what look like real disengagements by the Russian troops are likely the result of planning failures on Moscow’s part, and may signal an attempt to regroup.
The question is, though, are these retreats of Russian line fighting units a signal that Putin is breaking off the quest to conquer Kyiv’s government? Most analysts believe the Russians have not given up on overrunning Kyiv and capturing all of Ukraine eventually. “The only withdrawal that’s taken place there in the Kyiv area are units that are badly damaged and combat ineffective, and they’ve got to be reconstituted,” General Jack Keane, retired US Army vice chief of staff and chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, told Fox News. Furthermore, some troops are being repositioned from around Kyiv to where fighting is heavy in the Donbas region.
In a recent Pentagon briefing, the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, John Kirby, estimated the number of Russians disengaging from the battle in and around Kyiv was about 20% of the capital city attackers. Consequently, Ukraine’s soldiers have kept up the pressure. On March 31, a senior defense official gave the Pentagon press corps some perspective:
“But [the Ukrainians] have consistently been going on the offensive around Kyiv even before the Russians made decisions to start to reposition, even when they were just in defensive positions and sort of stalled and not moving forward, the Ukrainians were working against them.”
Numerous factors may be involved with Moscow pulling its troops off the battleline. Reconstituting ineffective units decimated through continuing battlefield casualties and loss of equipment may be just part of the rationale. In addition, reports describe inadequate logistics planning, lack of adequate messing facilities, insufficient ammunition, poor equipment performance, inadequate maintenance, and low troop morale. “I would just tell you that we have continued to see unit cohesion issues, command-and-control problems, problems of faulty leadership,” the Pentagon senior defense official explained. “And certainly, we have continued to see, again, anecdotal evidence of poor morale and poor performance by troops on the battlefield.”
Additionally, as Putin’s soldiers reposition, there may be significant reassessments of the tactics being used that have failed to produce the rapid subjugation of Ukraine and its government. Analyses of Russian ineptness point to a multitude of problems. Besides putting young soldiers into pitched battles with no understanding of why they were there, Kremlin war planners were negligent in other ways.
There has been little evidence of a Russian integrated combined arms strategy explaining the uncoordinated attacks where tanks, armored personnel carriers, and dismounted infantry move forward with no reconnaissance, exposing them to ambush by Ukrainian anti-tank and anti-armor missiles. Little in the way of attack helicopter air support is present to cover the infantry, and when it is, the attack helicopters are met with a fusillade of FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired missiles. The Ukrainian “shoot and scoot” tactics are very effective and taking their toll.
As many suspect, the Russians will likely be back to renew their attack. In the meantime, Ukrainian military forces and armed civilians have the opportunity to recover and re-fortify the cities the Russians have left, at least temporarily.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.