The Russian withdrawal around Kyiv and northern and northeastern Ukraine appears more comprehensive than most viewers expected. It will take some time before the picture becomes final, but Moscow forces are rapidly withdrawing from the country from the districts of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, according to Ukrainian regional officials.
It is impossible to describe this as anything other than a serious setback. The haste for the exit is such that some units are abandoned to be mopped up by the Ukrainians. Sumy, just over 30 km from the Russian border, has not fallen to the invaders, while the Chernihiv road, which was in danger of being surrounded, is now open towards the capital in the south-west.
Kyiv too can breathe again: the month of danger has passed and the full withdrawal means the capital is no longer within range of artillery fire – although it could still be hit by missiles from Belarus, if the Russians chose to throw them in bloody fashion. And, while it may seem like a new invasion could happen again at any time, the reality is that unless something drastic happens elsewhere, it cannot succeed.
Russia’s problem is that its forces have suffered heavy casualties from its overly optimistic and ill-planned multi-pronged attack. The number of killed could be anywhere between 7,000 and 15,000, with casualties typically double, from an invasion force of around 140,000. As Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote last week that Russia may have lost “about a quarter of its initial combat strength.”
Other estimates by Western officials have suggested that Russia’s combat effectiveness could be reduced by a fifth or a sixth, perhaps not as high but still operationally significant. The haste of the retreat recognizes that the invaders are in many ways exhausted and must concentrate their operations, fighting street by street to take Mariupol in the south and a more conventional military campaign in the Donbass region, where Ukrainian forces are entrenched.
What will happen here is less certain. Russia still has the ability and the desire to attack, and its forces are pressing south of Izium, a key strategic point, in an attempt to envelop the Ukrainian army which faces the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in ballast. But it seems that his forces had less success advancing north to join Velyka Novosilka, 100 km north of Mariupol. And after nearly seven weeks of intense fighting, it is by no means certain that Russia can sustain the effort.
“If Russia wants to push back the Ukrainian defenders near Donetsk and Lugansk, it will have to force them out of their defensive positions. Ukraine had five more years to prepare. This will require heavy artillery support and the use of combined arms – infantry, tanks, artillery, air power – which we have not seen so far,” said Ben Barry, land warfare specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Ukraine claims that some Russian forces, brought in as reinforcements, refuse to fight. On Sunday, his staff said two battalions of Russian forces in South Ossetia, the breakaway region of Georgia, “refused to participate in the fighting” in Ukraine and would return to base. Although this cannot be verified with certainty, there are enough reports of desertions and poor morale to believe that Russian combat effectiveness is massively reduced – against an enemy determined to fight for his homeland.
Meanwhile, mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group – whose number has been estimated at 1,000 – were photographed in Donetsk. But these are no substitute for well-trained regular forces: Wagner’s forces have, for example, struggled in countries like Mozambique, where they briefly tried to fight an insurgency in the Muslim north in 2019.
Ukraine will recognize that the nature of war has changed. Its supply lines, particularly in weapons from the west, have become less strained. But despite limited counter-offensives, there is no indication that his forces have the ability to push back Russian forces where they have made gains to the east and south. Calls for jets and tanks have gone unheeded, although Australia has promised to send Bushmaster armored personnel carriers, which will help mobility.
If Russia chooses to dig in, then the military balance – which usually favors the defender on a 3-1 ratio – is reversed. If his forces can complete the bloody recapture of Mariupol, the invaders will control the south between Crimea and occupied Donbass – and with the blockade of Odessa – ensure that Ukraine has no access to the sea.
Ukraine has not been defeated, although it has to fight in the Donbass. But with no change on the battlefield, it can be de facto divided again, against its will.