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Russia repositions troops away from Kyiv, marking a shift in the war

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with government members via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik | Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Russian military has begun to move some of its troops in Ukraine away from the areas around Kyiv to positions elsewhere it Ukraine, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Tuesday, offering the first sign of a strategic shift in its monthlong invasion of Ukraine.

“Up until recently, we had still assessed that their plan was was to occupy and annex Ukraine using approaches along three lines of attack,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. “Now we think they’re going to prioritize the east” of Ukraine.

Russian troops convoys “have been stalled in the north” around the capital, he said, while initial Russian progress in the south had also “stalled out.”

“Russia has failed in its objective of capturing Kyiv,” he said. “It has failed in its objective of subjugating Ukraine.”

Still, Kirby cautioned that the troop movements do not amount to a retreat, as some observers had speculated. “We believe that this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal,” said Kirby. “And that we all should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine.”

Kirby spoke several hours after a member of the Russian negotiating team in Istanbul announced that the Ministry of Defense had decided “to radically, at times, reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernikyiv direction.”

The Kremlin official claimed the reduced military activity was meant to “increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations.”

Markets rose early Tuesday on news of the “reduced military activity,” amid hopes that Russia’s announcement meant the brutal and costly invasion would soon be over.

But leaders on both sides of the Atlantic quickly dismissed the idea that Putin and the Kremlin were acting in good faith.

“We’ll see,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday in response to a question about the Russian pledge to scale back troops in the north. “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are. We’ll see if they follow through on what they’re suggesting,” Biden told reporters at the White House.

“In the meantime, we’re going to continue to keep strong the sanctions,” said Biden. “We’re going to continue to provide the Ukrainian military with their capacity to defend themselves. And we’re going to continue to keep a close eye on what’s going on.”

Biden made the remarks after a call Tuesday morning with the leaders of Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and France to discuss Ukraine. Following the call, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said that he put little stock in Russia’s announcement that it would scale back attacks around Kyiv.

“We must judge Putin’s regime by their actions not their words,” Johnson told the other leaders on the call. “Putin is twisting the knife in the open wound of Ukraine in an attempt to force the country and its allies to capitulate.”

French President Emmanuel Macron was also on the call Tuesday, and afterwards he spoke to Putin. According to the Kremlin, Putin and Macron discussed the “grave humanitarian situation” in the city of Mariupol, which has been under siege by Russian troops for several weeks.

In a sign of how far Putin is from admitting culpability for the suffering in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian president reportedly told Macron that the humanitarian situation in Mariupol — where thousands of civilians have been killed by Russian troops — would not improve until “Ukrainian nationalist militants” stopped “resisting” and disarmed.

Given that the Ukrainian military is fighting on Ukrainian soil, Putin’s demand that they surrender their weapons to Russian soldiers appeared deeply cynical.

Western officials will be watching closely in the coming days to see whether Russian troops move to Eastern Ukraine, and whether Russia expands its military draft to conscript more soldiers, a decision Putin is expected to make by April 1.

Still it’s unclear whether more soldiers would give the Kremlin a strategic advantage over the passionate, mobilized Ukrainians.

“No amount of spin can mask what the world has witnessed over the past month,” Kirby said Tuesday.
“And that’s the courage and the military prowess of Ukraine’s armed forces and its people.”

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