When a Kremlin official spoke on Tuesday to announce that Russia would “reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv direction,” with the claim that this was intended to “increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations.” There were questions about whether Russia would change its tactics at all.
For days, Ukraine had been making gains in the region both northwest and to the east of Kyiv, liberating villages and threatening to cut off Russian forces in the Kyiv suburbs. But for the next two days, it seemed that Russia would keep on fighting—and losing—in northern Ukraine. However, by Wednesday evening, Russian propagandist began to spread claims that Russia had never meant to take Kyiv at all. By then, Russians had started running.
The claims by Russian officials that Zelenskyy would flee the city within hours, that Kyiv would fall within three days, and that the whole invasion would be wrapped up in a few weeks? No, no, that was just a feint. Russia was merely sacrificing 15,000 troops and over 2,000 pieces of equipment to distract everyone while they carried out the real war in the east and south. That war where they had accomplished almost taking Mariupol.
Spoiler alert: As of Friday, Russia still doesn’t have full control of Mariupol. It still doesn’t have a safe land bridge connecting Crimea with the Donbas. It still hasn’t moved Ukrainian forces off the defensive lines that existed before the invasion in the east. So if the intention was to get everyone looking north while they made big advances in the east … that didn’t exactly work. But it sure did burn through a lot of men and materiel.
It’s not just in the Kyiv region that Ukraine has been making gains. They’ve pushed Russian forces back from Mykolaiv in the south, cut off a thrust toward Kyrivyi Rih, and recaptured villages around Kharkiv in the northeast. Ukrainian helicopters also staged a daring attack on a oil depot across the Russian border in Belgorod, which could affect Russia’s ability to reposition forces.
Now Russian troops northwest of Kyiv seem to be in a headlong rush for the Belarus border; so much so that sites dedicated to mapping the action or keeping track of military hardware are finding it impossible to keep up. What was the line between Russian forces and Ukrainian forces in the morning was completely erased by noon. Then erased again. It’s now evening in Ukraine, and the progress of Ukrainian forces in retaking towns and villages may slow during the night. The running away will likely continue. When the sun comes up on Saturday, there may well be no Russian forces on the ground west of the Dneiper River.
This certainly isn’t what most analysts expected. By completely fleeing the area, rather than attempting to fortify and hold along some line, Russia allows Ukraine to shift its forces to meet the rising challenge in the east. Some troops will undoubtedly continue to hold the area near Kyiv, but considering the speed with which Russia approached the city, and the lack of logistical skill demonstrated, that force may be considerably smaller than it was when the invasion began. Besides, if Russia wants to put more troops back into the Red Forest, Ukraine will likely just let them.
At the end of the day, Ukrainian forces completed the liberation of Bucha, capturing or killing the remaining Russian forces in that area. With that, the last Russian troops within twenty miles of Kyiv appear to be gone. At the same time, villages and highways around Chernihiv have also been returning to Ukrainian control.
In both places, Russia has left behind a long list of equipment — but it’s not just tanks, trucks, artillery, and missile launchers Russia is leaving behind. They’re leaving behind the bodies of their own dead. Ukrainian forces have cleared the highway from Kyiv to Kharkiv. But the work of clearing away the Russian dead is going to take some time.