WASHINGTON — The Ukrainians have launched successful but limited counterattacks east and northeast of Kyiv, blows that may have sped up the Russian pullback once it became clear to Moscow that its forces would not be able to take Ukraine’s capital, according to Western diplomats and independent military analysts.
The Russian pullback is real, these officials and analysts say, a sign that Moscow’s initial strategy has failed in the face of grave planning failures, logistical problems and fierce and effective Ukrainian resistance. But they caution that it will take some days to be certain of what Russian forces are doing.
The new analyzes come after Pentagon and NATO officials had initially raiseds about the Russian withdrawal, doubting that it could be just a repositioning of forces or a chance to refit and resupply forces in Belarus, away from Ukrainian attacks.
Frederick Kagan, a military expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said the Ukrainian counterattack that began last week appears to have convinced Russian commanders to change their strategy.
“The counterattacks probably prompted the Russian decision to give up on Kyiv,” Mr. Kagan said. “The counterattacks demonstrated that the Russians were actually not going to be able to hold the positions they occupied anyway. And so they made the decision to retrograde in good order rather than be chased back.”
Continued air and missile strikes on Kyiv and Chernihiv may be aimed at covering the Russian retreat and keeping pressure on the Ukrainian government, rather than a renewed attack on Kyiv or other cities in the region, analysts say.
Janes, an independent defense intelligence firm, reported that multiple Russian units had withdrawn from Kyiv, moving toward Belarus. Janes also reported that Ukrainian counterattacks had successfully reopened a road to Sumy, splitting apart one of the Russian fronts.
One European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss candidly intelligence assessments, said while it is hard to tell what Russia’s shifting strategy will be, initial signs are its new, narrower goals include expanding the amount of territory it occupies in Eastern Ukraine, and potentially consolidating control over the southeastern Ukrainian coast between Donetsk and Crimea, including the besieged city of Mariupol.
While officials and analysts expect Russia to move forces to eastern Ukraine, not all of the troops pulling back from Kyiv are likely to be redeployed there, Mr. Kagan said. Many of the forces assembled to attack the capital were inexperienced, poorly organized and incompetent in battle.
“The forces that are around Kyiv are largely combat ineffective, and we do not expect to see those forces turning up with significant combat power in the east anytime soon,” he said.
Instead, units of the First Guards Tank Army, a more experienced and less badly damaged unit, are more likely to be moved from near Kharkiv and then used in the fight against the Ukrainian army in Donetsk, Mr. Kagan said.
Russian forces now seem to be pursuing a strategy to encircle Ukrainian positions in the country’s east, according to diplomats and analysts. So far the Ukrainians have successfully kept their supply lines open, and Russia’s pullback from Kyiv may allow Ukraine to reinforce its units in the east, the European diplomat said.
And Russia’s encirclement strategy may face significant problems. To execute it, Russian commanders will need to stretch their supply lines and thin out an already thin force, making it hard to protect those supply lines from Ukrainian attack.
“The bigger the force you encircle, the more forces required to do that,” Mr. Kagan said. “It’s going to be very complicated. Currently, the Russian penetration is itself very thin. The Russian lines are also very long, and we’ve seen that movie before. They tried long lines of supply from Sumy to Kyiv and that ended in tears for the Russians.”