Ukraine Situation Report: Russia Begins To Withdraw Forces In The North
Russia’s top negotiator in talks with Ukrainian officials said this de-escalation should not be confused for a ceasefire.
Russia's military is now actively pulling forces from areas around Ukraine's capital Kyiv and in the Chernihiv region further to the north. Despite these withdrawals, first beginning to emerge last week amid Ukrainian counteroffensives, Russian authorities have tried to claim that this is a confidence-building measure tied to negotiations today between representatives from both sides in Turkey.
Many officially declared Russian military withdrawals in recent years, including supposed drawdowns right before the invasion of Ukraine began in February, have turned out to be feints, if they happened at all. However, there are growing indications that the Russian government's strategy is actually shifting and is becoming more limited in scope, with its focus increasingly on securing territory in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region and in certain areas in the southern portion of the country. Fighting in those parts of Ukraine certainly hasn't abated regardless of Russian troops pulling out in the north. Russia's top negotiator in Turkey has stressed that there is no formalized ceasefire of any kind in place right now.
As for the negotiations in Turkey themselves, Ukraine has laid out a proposal that includes a plan for guaranteeing its security (while also giving up any ambitions to join NATO) and a path toward negotiating the final status of the Crimea Peninsula. Russian officials continue to offer mixed messages on whether or not they may be willing to relent on their most maximalist demands for ending the conflict. These have included ceding control of Crimea to Russia, recognizing two breakaway areas of the Donbas as independent countries, and unspecified actions to "demilitarize" and "denazify" Ukraine, the latter of which seems to be shorthand for regime change in Kyiv.
The War Zone readers can get fully up to speed first on what has been happening in the conflict in Ukraine before jumping into the latest news below with our preceding rolling coverage here.
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POSTED: 1:50 PM EST—
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin told reporters earlier today that a decision had been made to “fundamentally cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernigiv” specifically to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations to agree and sign a peace deal with Ukraine.” Independent reports indicated that Russian forces in these areas had been moving north toward marshaling points in Belarus.
Medals appear to have been handed out to some Russian troops as part of the withdrawals.
Despite Fomin's linking of the withdrawals to today's negotiations in Turkey, the pullout of forces in the north comes after weeks of stalled Russian advances in northern Ukraine and now growing Ukrainian counterattacks. The Ukrainian military has said that the drawdowns began at least five days ago. The U.S. military also began making similar assessments last week.
Questions have already been raised about the Russian government's true intentions with these apparent withdrawals, including whether it is simply a regrouping of forces to prepare for another round of offensives in the north in the future. Russia has an established history of claiming to be drawing down forces and scaling back operations, particularly in Syria, only to then do the opposite.
CNN has reported that the U.S. government believes that this could well reflect a longer-term shift in strategy in light of the failure to quickly capture significant areas of northeastern Ukraine, including Kyiv. The forces withdrawn from their part of the country could then be used to bolster efforts in the southern region, where Russian forces have been most successful in their advances.
Earlier, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Russia had “significantly reduced” the Ukrainian military's combat capacity and was therefore shifting its focus to "liberating Donbas." Though the assertion that Russian forces seriously impaired the Ukrainian military's ability to fight back is highly dubious, this is consistent with other official Russian statements in the past few days indicating a shift in objectives. Securing the Donbas and various other areas in southern Ukraine would give the Russian government a key overland link to occupied Crimea. It could effectively lead to the bifurcation of Ukraine, with the head of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic saying that formally joining the Russian Federation is a definite future possibility.
The Russian military will of course retain the ability to target Kyiv and other areas of northern Ukraine using stand-off munitions like cruise and ballistic missiles. There remains no guarantee that if Russian forces can complete their objectives elsewhere that they might not turn their attention again to the northeast.
Vladimir Medinsky, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin who is Russia's top negotiator at the talks in Turkey today, has said that "de-escalation does not mean a ceasefire." He also implied that the reason for halting operations in the north, and around Kyiv in particular, was because Russia needed certain Ukrainian officials alive to agree to the Kremlin's terms.
Medinsky's remarks, which also included an assertion that there was no opposition from Moscow to Ukraine potentially joining the European Union in the future, in many ways reflects the mixed messaging from the Russian government regarding its negotiating position. Reports continue to indicate that Russian officials may be easing their demands, but their public statements repeatedly suggest otherwise.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that there are no signs so far that Russia is actually serious about negotiating a peace deal with Ukraine. He stressed that the U.S. government still supports Ukraine's diplomatic efforts if authorities in Kyiv feel that progress is being made.
For their part, Ukrainian officials have said they have no intention of making concessions that cede "people, land, and sovereignty" to the Russian government. The proposal put forward by the negotiators from Ukraine today included a framework for security guarantees that would be backed by one or more third-party countries – potentially Canada, China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and/or the United States – possibly through some kind of collective defense provision broadly comparable to NATO's Article 5. A pledge to settle the matter of Crimea within 15 years through exclusive bilateral negotiations and without the threat of force is also part of the Ukrainian plan. The actual implementation of the security guarantee part of the plan would require a public referendum in Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities continue to push for greater humanitarian access to various parts of the country and for other assurances from the Russian side to adhere to internationally accepted laws and norms regarding armed conflict. Russian forces have been credibly accused of committing various war crimes in the country during the conflict already.
Regardless, Russia's war in Ukraine has certainly not come to an end, especially in the southern part of the country.
Vitaliy Kim, the governor of Ukraine's southern Mykolaiv region, who has become a prominent symbol of the resistance to the Russian invasion, said today that a Russian cruise missile targeted his office, killing at least seven people and wounding 22 more. Kim said he escaped the attack because he slept in and wasn't at work at the time.
Russian forces continue to strike strategic targets in western Ukraine. Authorities in the Khmelnytskyi region said a fuel depot was destroyed today, but that there were no casualties.
Russian forces say they have captured two MAM-L precision-guided munitions, small glide bombs that are employed by Ukraine's Turkish-made TB2 armed drones.
At a hearing before Congress today, U.S. Air Force General Tod Wolters, head of U.S. European Command, disclosed that the U.S. government was helping multiple NATO allies in "backfilling" various capabilities as they have transferred weapons and other equipment to Ukraine. This came in response to a question about whether there were any plans to assist Slovakia in acquiring American-made Patriot surface-to-air missile systems in exchange for it sending its Soviet-era S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Ukraine.
At that same hearing General Wolters, also admitted the potential for some kind of U.S. intelligence gap given the poor performance of the Russian armed forces and security services in Ukraine so far. What has actually happened since the invasion began stands in stark contrast to American and other foreign intelligence assessments about the Ukrainian military's prospects for resisting for any sort of protracted period of time. “As we’ve always done in the past, when this crisis is over with, we will accomplish a comprehensive after-action review in all domains and in all departments and find out where our weak areas were and make sure we can find ways to improve, and this could be one of those areas," he told lawmakers.
A Ukrainian Border Guard captured when Russian forces took control of Ukraine's Zmiinyi Island, or Snake Island, in the western end of the Black Sea early in the conflict, who reportedly uttered the now-iconic line "Russian warship, go fuck yourself!" when asked to surrender, has now been released.
Various countries in Europe appear to have carried out organized expulsions of Russian nationals from their territory. These individuals have all been working in diplomatic capacities, but are said to have been working for Russian intelligence agencies.
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