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Russian troops leaving Kyiv area as Moscow focuses more on eastern Ukraine

TOPSHOT - A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of a destroyed Russian armoured personnel carrier (APC) in a village on the frontline of the northern part of Kyiv region on March 28, 2022. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov / AFP) (Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)
A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of a destroyed Russian armored personnel carrier in a village on the frontline of the northern part of the Kyiv region on Monday. Russia says its troops are starting to withdraw from Kyiv, thought the Pentagon believes they will likely be deployed elsewhere in Ukraine.
https://ondemand.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/me/2022/03/20220331_me_ukraine-fighting.mp3?orgId=1&topicId=1124&aggIds=1082539802&d=218&p=3&story=1089885222&ft=nprml&f=1001

Updated March 31, 2022 at 12:58 PM ET

Five weeks into the war, Russia is pulling back some of its troops back from areas around the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and appears to be ramping up military operations in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Roughly 20 percent of the Russian troops outside Kyiv have begun withdrawing in the past day or so, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. These include frontline troops that were as close as 10 miles from the city center.

The troops are heading north towards Belarus, and some have already crossed the border, according to the Pentagon. But U.S. officials are calling it a "repositioning" rather than a permanent withdrawal.

"Our assessment would be that they're going to refit these troops, resupply them and then probably employ them elsewhere else in Ukraine," Kirby said on Wednesday.

In the first two weeks of the war, Russian troops advanced to the outskirts of Kyiv, a city with a pre-war population of around 3 million.

The U.S. and the Ukrainians said it was clear that the Russians wanted to oust President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government. But the Russians have been stalled for three weeks, and are now pulling back from their initial plan.

Still, most Russian forces near Kyiv remain in place, and Russia continues to target the city with long-range artillery on the ground and airstrikes from above.

So while Russian forces may not be able to take Kyiv at this point, they are primed to keep up this long-range bombardment indefinitely.

In addition, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in remarks Thursday that there is reason to take Russia's announcements with a grain of salt.

"We have heard the recent statements that Russia will scale down military operations around Kyiv and in northern Ukraine," he said. "But Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions. So we can only judge Russia on its actions, not on its words."

If Russia redeploys the troops, eastern Ukraine is seen as a likely destination. Russia has said this week it will focus on that region and both Ukrainian and U.S. intelligence say they're seeing operations intensify there.

Stoltenberg also cited intelligence on Thursday that suggests Russia is trying to "regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region" in the east.

Russian troops are still fighting on the edges of the hard-hit coastal city of Mariupol, and taking it would give Russia control of a substantial swathe of Ukrainian territory — from the Donbas in the east, down the southeastern coast, through the Crimean peninsula in the south. That would allow Russia to potentially cut off Ukrainian forces to prevent them from defending other parts of the country.

The big question remains: What will Russian President Vladimir Putin do next, and what are his ultimate goals in Ukraine?

The White House said Wednesday it believes Putin is getting limited or even bad information from advisers who don't want to give him negative news on the state of the war or Russia's economy.

After the White House's statement, the Pentagon said it concurred and then a top British intelligence official agreed in a rare public speech. That coordinated announcement is reminiscent of the kinds of intelligence leaks that came from the U.S. and its allies before Russia first invaded last month — and that intelligence did turn out to be accurate.


This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What is Russia planning next for Ukraine? Russia says it's repositioning troops that once were trying to capture Kyiv. The U.S. says it has detected some movement of troops, but it's hard to know what's in the mind of Russian commanders or of their president, Vladimir Putin. To better understand where this might be going, we've called NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, what troops are moving where?

MYRE: Well, the Pentagon says an estimated 20% or so of the Russian troops who've been outside Kyiv have begun to withdraw over the past day or so. Now, these include some frontline troops that were only about 10 miles or so from the city center. These forces are headed north toward neighboring Belarus. Some have already crossed the border. However, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby is calling this a repositioning of Russian troops, not a permanent withdrawal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: Our assessment would be, as we said yesterday, that they're going to refit these troops, resupply them and then probably employ them elsewhere in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Does that suggest a different focus, a new strategy, then?

MYRE: Well, quite possibly, yes. You know, we're five weeks into the war at this point. And in the first two weeks, the Russians advanced and got close to Kyiv in the north and northwest of the capital. This was clearly a major objective to oust President Zelenskyy and take over the capital. But the Russians have been stalled for the past three weeks. They're clearly pulling back from an initial plan that just didn't work. Now, that said, most of the Russian forces near Kyiv are still there, and they're bombarding the city with artillery on the ground and supported by air strikes. So the Russians may not be able to take Kyiv at this point, but they can keep up this long-range bombardment indefinitely.

INSKEEP: Continuing to do physical damage, economic damage to the capital of Ukraine. But what is the new Russian area of interest, a place these troops who are backing up might go instead?

MYRE: Well, it's really eastern Ukraine. The Russians said this week openly that they'll focus on the east. And the Ukrainians and the U.S. say they are seeing more intense Russian operations in this regions - region. The coastal city of Mariupol has been one of the hardest hit cities in Ukraine throughout the war. And if the Russians can take it, and they do have troops who have reached parts of the city, Russia would then control a substantial swath of Ukraine from the Donbas region in the east, down along the southeast coast, to the Crimean peninsula in the south. And this would also allow Russia to pin down or cut off these Ukrainian forces so they can't help defend other parts of the country. So we certainly expect this to be the main battleground in the days ahead.

INSKEEP: Let's try to get inside the head of Vladimir Putin, if we can, or at least find out how U.S. officials are trying to do that. The White House, the Pentagon, other officials said yesterday they think Putin has been getting bad information from his advisers and that he himself is finding out how misinformed he was. What is being said and why?

MYRE: Right. So the White House rolled this out on Wednesday afternoon, and then the Pentagon said it concurred. And a top British intelligence official said the same thing. So this is clearly a coordinated announcement, the kind of intelligence - declassified intelligence assessments we've been seeing from the U.S. that began before the war, and they've largely proved accurate. So it's clear that Putin miscalculated. Some of his top advisers are not being seen. So there are some strange things going on. The big question is, what will Putin do next and what is his ultimate goal in Ukraine?

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.