Why is Russia’s military regrouping and can Ukraine forces disrupt them? | Ukraine


Russia’s announcement on Tuesday that it would “reduce military activity” around Kyiv and the nearby city of Chernihiv has been greeted with predictable scepticism, not least because shelling of both cities has continued.

While some movement of troops from the north back to Belarus has been detected, these appear to be part of normal operational redeployments, and they do not yet definitively amount to a retreat. Ukraine’s general staff said overnight Russia was engaged in “probably a rotation of the separate units and aims at misleading”.

If anything the shelling, with its consequences for civilians, is sadly to be expected: Russia will want to cover any halting of the ground offensive with firepower both to maintain uncertainty and keep Ukrainian forces tied down. And the capacity to bomb the city from a distance remains.

Yet, it is obvious that Russia is, in the words of Konrad Muzyka, a military intelligence specialist and president of Rochan Consulting, “buying time” – as it seeks to refocus on the Donbas region and win a more conventional military victory in the east.

The evident reality is that five weeks of near constant fighting north-west of the capital have utterly depleted Russia’s combat power. Across the board, Russian forces have suffered more than 10,000 casualties, the US now estimates – for a war that few of its troops expected or were properly prepared for.

Moscow may also be concerned that the Russian invaders to the north-west of Kyiv could even become vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks – although while Irpin, 20km from Kyiv city centre, has been recaptured, it is not yet clear that the defenders have the military strength to roll the invaders rapidly back.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian forces must press on where they can, to make it harder for Russia to retrench and regroup.

On the one hand, the Russian statements also reflects a significant – but temporary – win for Ukraine. A siege of Kyiv, a nightmare scenario for hundreds of thousands, has been averted, by a spirited defence that has seen light infantry harass and destroy Russian armour that tried and failed to bear down on the capital.

But Russia has a lot to gain from a slowdown in fighting, particularly where it is accompanied by hopeful-sounding rhetoric about reduced military activity around Kyiv – while its forces fight building by building for control of Mariupol in the south.

Its forces can rest, reorganise, and quietly concentrate mass in the east, now the publicly stated focus of operations. Reinforcements, where they are available, are “mostly lined up for reinforcements in operations in the Donbas”, western intelligence officials said on Tuesday.

They come from as far afield as Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, and the country’s far east, and amount to about 10 battalion tactical groups, the smallest operating unit of the Russian army, each with about 800 personnel at full strength. For comparison Russia invaded with 115-120 such battalions, although up to 20 are now estimated to be no longer functional.

Accompanying them, it is believed, are about 1,000 fighters from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian mercenary group normally engaged in Kremlin-supported missions in Africa and the Middle East, but such is Moscow’s need for a military victory they have been brought into the fight closer to home.

Phil Osborn, a former chief of UK defence intelligence, believes that while “both sides will benefit from a lessening of the operational tempo” the reality is that the Russians have the most to gain. “For this reduction not just to be a significant benefit to Russia, the west must maximise and quickly increase its support to Ukraine.”

Ukraine has been asking for more powerful arms – including tanks, anti-aircraft and anti-artillery systems – for several days. But the question now is how far western leaders are ready to resupply Kyiv, particularly as there is now speculation that stocks of some high-end weapons such as the anti-tank Javelins are running short.

John Schaus, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US thinktank, counted the US has sent 4,600 Javelins to Ukraine, which “accounts for more than half of the 8,885 Javelins the Department of Defense acquired in the past decade”.

A discussion between Joe Biden, the US president, and fellow leaders in the UK, Germany, France and Italy on Tuesday afternoon is said to have concluded that all five wanted to “increase our support for Ukraine”, according to one senior western official who listened in, a hint that more weapons would be sent, although when and what remains unclear.

Russia may have started the war with its unprovoked invasion last month, but at the moment it is Ukraine that has the most to gain from continuing to fight if its forces are able to disrupt Moscow’s efforts to regroup.