WASHINGTON — Ukrainians have launched successful but limited counterattacks east and northeast of Kyiv, strikes that may have hastened the Russian withdrawal as Moscow realized its forces would not be able to take the capital, according to Western diplomats and independent military officials of Ukraine to take analyst.
The Russian withdrawal is real, these officials and analysts say, a sign that Moscow’s initial strategy has failed in the face of serious planning errors, logistical problems, and fierce and effective Ukrainian resistance. But they warn it will take a few days to be sure what Russian forces are doing.
The new analyzes come after Pentagon and NATO officials initially expressed doubts about the Russian withdrawal, arguing it could just be a repositioning of forces or a chance to upgrade and resupply forces in Belarus away from Ukrainian attacks .
Frederick Kagan, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Ukrainian counterattack that began last week appears to have persuaded Russian commanders to change strategy.
“The counterattacks probably prompted the Russian decision to abandon Kyiv,” Mr Kagan said. “The counterattacks have shown that the Russians cannot hold the positions they have occupied anyway. And so they made the decision to fall back in good shape rather than be chased back.”
Continued air and missile attacks on Kyiv and Chernihiv may be aimed more at covering up Russian withdrawal and keeping pressure on the Ukrainian government than a renewed attack on Kyiv or other cities in the region, analysts say.
Janes, an independent defense intelligence agency, reported that several Russian units had withdrawn from Kyiv towards Belarus. Janes also reported that Ukrainian counterattacks had successfully reopened a road to Sumy and split one of the Russian fronts.
A European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss intelligence assessments, said while it’s hard to say what Russia’s strategic shift will look like, these are early signs of its new, narrower goals, including expanding territory, occupying eastern Ukraine, and possibly consolidating control of the south-eastern Ukrainian coast between Donetsk and Crimea, including the besieged city of Mariupol.
While officials and analysts expect Russia to move troops to eastern Ukraine, not all troops withdrawing from Kyiv are likely to go there, Mr Kagan said. Many of the forces assembled to attack the capital were inexperienced, disorganized and incapable of combat.
“The forces around Kyiv are largely incapacitated and we do not expect these forces to appear in the east with any significant combat capability any time soon,” he said.
Instead, units of the First Guards Tank Army, a more experienced and less damaged unit, would be more likely to be moved from near Kharkiv and then used to fight the Ukrainian army in Donetsk, Kagan said.
According to diplomats and analysts, Russian forces now appear to be pursuing a strategy to encircle Ukrainian positions in the east of the country. So far, the Ukrainians have successfully kept their supply lines open and Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv could allow Ukraine to reinforce its units in the east, the European diplomat said.
And Russia’s encirclement strategy could face significant problems. To execute it, Russian commanders will have to lengthen their supply lines, thinning out an already thin force, making it difficult to protect those supply lines from Ukrainian attacks.
“The bigger the force you’re encircling, the more forces it takes to do it,” Mr. Kagan said. “It’s going to be very complicated. Currently, Russian penetration itself is very low. The Russian lines are also very long, and we’ve seen this film before. They tried long supply lines from Sumy to Kyiv and it ended in tears for the Russians.”