Russia in Broad Retreat From Kyiv, Seeking to Regroup From Battering

BUCHA, Ukraine — The Russian forces, intent on overwhelming Kyiv with tanks and artillery when the war started, retreated under fire across a broad front by Saturday, leaving behind them dead soldiers and burned vehicles, according to witnesses, Ukrainian officials, satellite images and military analysts.

The withdrawal suggested the possibility of a major turn in the six-week war — the failure, at least for now, of Russia’s initial attempt to seize Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and the end of its hopes for the quick subjugation of the nation.

“The initial Russian operation was a failure and one of its central goals — the capture of Kyiv — proved unobtainable for Russian forces,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va., said in a telephone interview Saturday.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, attacks by Russian military forces continued unabated, and the Pentagon has cautioned that the formations near Kyiv could be repositioning for renewed assaults.

In the south, an aid convoy organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross that had stalled on its way to bring some relief to the besieged city of Mariupol was on the move again. The hope, repeatedly frustrated by Russian shelling, was to bring emergency supplies to trapped residents and to evacuate hundreds of those who have endured weeks of bombardment that has left shortages of food and water, amid corpses left abandoned on the streets.

As the Ukrainian army advances, it is moving through a tableau of destruction in the suburban towns to the north of Kyiv, with dozens of wrecked tanks on streets, extensive damage to buildings and bodies of civilians still lying uncollected.

Ukrainian soldiers from the rar-right Azov Battalion near the remnants of a Russian military convoy in the recently liberated town of Bucha on Saturday.Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Ukraine’s military asserted on Saturday that it had captured Bucha, a key outlying town to the north of Kyiv on the west bank of the Dnipro River, after Russian forces pulled back.

“They went from apartment to apartment collecting televisions and computers, loaded them on their tanks and left,” Svetlana Semenova, a retiree, said of the Russian departure, which she described as chaotic. “They left in a hurry.”

A few dozen people who had been living mostly in basements for a month emerged to collect food — bags of potatoes and bread — brought by Ukrainian soldiers.

Elena Shur, 43, an accountant for Ukraine’s national airline, said the Ukrainian military had appeared in the town on Friday. The first sign of a Ukrainian presence was a civilian car carrying soldiers, which drove through town waving a Ukrainian flag.

“We saw people on the street, and soldiers,” Ms. Shur said. “I cried.”

Reporters counted six bodies of civilians on the streets and sidewalks of Bucha. It was unclear under what circumstances they had died, but the discarded packaging of a Russian military ration was lying beside one man who had been shot in the head.

Residents of Bucha walk past the body of a civilian left in the street on Saturday.Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The town was the site of a major Ukrainian ambush of a Russian armored column in the first days of the war, and one street was blocked by dozens of incinerated tanks and trucks.

Despite that setback, the Russians had captured the town and held it for about a month, and had executed half a dozen members of the Territorial Defense Force, the volunteer army many Ukrainians joined when the war started, one resident said, leaving the bodies in a heavily mined part of town.

The Ukrainians have advanced at least another 15 miles to the north of Bucha, where they now fly Ukrainian flags over former Russian checkpoints.

Conditions had clearly unraveled for the Russian soldiers. Locals said they had quartered in abandoned apartments and looted stores for food, while suffering continual losses.

“According to our information, they are running away from all areas around Kyiv,” said Sgt. Ihor Zaichuk, the commander of the 1st company of the 2nd Azov battalion in the Ukrainian army, which fought in Bucha.

“They can say on their own television stations, if they want, that they are the second most powerful army in the world,” he said. “But they aren’t anymore.”

But in a word of caution, he said the Russians could be back. “Only their commanders know if they will be re-equipped and return.”

On the east bank of the Dnipro, Ukrainian forces were pressing forward in villages dozens of miles from the capital, according to an intelligence officer with the S.B.U., the Ukrainian domestic intelligence service, who declined to be identified for security reasons.

“The Russians are adjusting their goals to reality,” Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, said in an interview on Saturday. “I think they know they’re in trouble, so I don’t think it’s a ruse to say they’re concentrating on the Donbas, because in reality that’s all they can do.”

As for the retreat from around Kyiv, Mr. Freedman said, it shows that the Russians, having botched the early part of the war, “simply cannot hold all their current positions beyond the Donbas region,” in eastern Ukraine.

In the suburb of Irpin, which the Ukrainians had recaptured before Bucha, demining operations were in full swing on Saturday. Some civilian bodies had been booby-trapped to kill emergency workers, Ukrainian officials said.

One group of military engineers, dressed in heavy blue Kevlar armor, had tied a rope to a body. They pulled it, to test if the motion would trigger booby traps. By late in the day, however, the body remained there, with the engineers apparently unable to ascertain if it was safe to collect.

In the village of Dmytrivka, west of the capital, there were signs of a grim and chaotic Russian retreat. On a forest road leading out of the village, nine tanks and armored vehicles lay destroyed and gutted by fire at the scene of a tank battle three days earlier. The turrets and heavy guns of two tanks lay tossed aside. The burned human remains of men were visible inside their armored personnel carrier.

Burned- out remains of Russian armored vehicles littered a forest road near Dmytrivka on Saturday.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

“They did not leave, they were destroyed,” said Valentina Yatsevich, 58, a villager walking past the wrecks toward her home.

In Russia itself, the retreat caused consternation among cheerleaders of the war, with state television having previously raised expectations that the Russian military would capture Kyiv.

Semyon Pegov, a popular pro-Kremlin war blogger embedded with the Russian troops, posted a video to the social messaging app Telegram on Saturday explaining that the move was “a withdrawal, not a flight.”

Russia’s stretched-out supply lines, and the threat of further losses as its troops tried to survive in field conditions facing a much better supplied and fortified enemy, necessitated the retreat, he said.

It was an effort, mirrored by other pro-Kremlin outlets, to explain why Russia seemed to have sharply scaled back its war aims in recent days, after taking painful losses in fighting for the Kyiv suburbs.

The Russian military first said on Wednesday that it was “regrouping” forces in the Kyiv area, claiming that it had never planned to take the city in the first place and that those soldiers’ task had only been to pin down the Ukrainian forces there.

In fact, Russian officials said, the main goal was to take more territory in the Donbas region.

But Russian hard-liners have continued to call for an attack on Kyiv, and see the retreat as a disappointment. “I don’t know why this decision was made,” Aleksandr Kots, a war correspondent for the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote on Telegram about the Kyiv withdrawal. “The war is only beginning. We’ll figure out later who was right and who was at fault.”

Residents of the recently liberated town of Bucha reach for food being distributed by Ukrainian soldiers on Saturday. The town had not received food, or had gas or electricity to cook, for more than 30 days while Russian forces fought in the streets.Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The Kremlin maintained its defiance as state television released an interview with Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, characterizing the United States as being at the root of Europe’s ills. He expressed confidence that European countries would renew relations with Russia once they “sober up a little from the American bourbon.”

Mr. Kofman, the expert on the Russian military, said the Russian pullback from Kyiv had begun quietly about a week ago and had now accelerated.

After the assault on the capital stalled about two weeks ago, he said, only two options remained: withdrawing or leaving forces in the area to pin down Ukrainian units, preventing them from reinforcing troops in the country’s east or south. It now appears the Russians are withdrawing, he said.

Throughout Ukraine, he said, the Russian army has lost about 2,000 pieces of equipment that were either destroyed, captured or abandoned, including about 350 tanks.

In other developments on Saturday, Pope Francis, visiting the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, edged closer to blaming President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for the war in Ukraine than he had before. In an address to Maltese dignitaries and officials, the pope blamed a “potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests” for casting “dark shadows of war” from Europe’s east.

Francis has declined to explicitly blame Mr. Putin or Russia as the aggressor for various reasons, including the Vatican’s hopes of playing a role in a potential peace agreement, and out of precaution to not endanger Roman Catholics around the world. But on Saturday, he clearly seemed to be speaking about Mr. Putin, who he said was “provoking and fomenting conflicts.”

Russian forces retreated from Irpin, a strategic town just 12 miles outside of Kyiv, after weeks of heavy fighting and ceaseless bombardment. Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Bucha, Ukraine, and Neil MacFarquhar from New York. Reporting was contributed by Anton Troianovski in Istanbul; Carlotta Gall in Dmytrivka, Ukraine; Megan Specia in Warsaw; Steven Erlanger in Brussels; and Jason Horowitz in Rome.

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