Russia‘s push to capture Kyiv has failed and all of its troops have retreated from the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, marking a crushing defeat for the Kremlin and dealing a blow to the country’s perceived status as a global military power.
The complete pullback from the Kyiv region — which Russian planners appear to have believed would fall easily — is the most dramatic evidence so far that a war barely six weeks old could have consequences that will be felt for decades.
U.S. defense officials said Russian forces completed their withdrawal from Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv, effectively ending the effort to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and pull the democracy back into Moscow’s orbit. The campaign to take Kyiv was marred by a stunning series of tactical and strategic failures by Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s army, and analysts say his legacy will now be tied to a historic blunder that cost thousands of lives and shook the foundations of Moscow’s economy.
The economic fallout for Mr. Putin continued Wednesday as the Biden administration announced another round of sanctions specifically targeting his adult children and two of Russia‘s largest banks. The latest financial punishments come amid outrage over alleged Russian war crimes in Bucha, where civilians appear to have been executed at close range, some with apparent gunshots to the head and others appearing to have had their throats slashed.
The Kremlin has dismissed the images from Bucha as Ukrainian propaganda meant to stir up anti-Russian sentiment.
But the shocking images coming out of the war-torn city have added more fuel to an international push to bring Mr. Putin to account as a war criminal. Meanwhile, the combination of economic free-fall and battlefield embarrassments could further damage Mr. Putin‘s standing at home, where public support for the Ukraine incursion remains popular in the midst of a heavy news blackout.
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Despite the surprisingly positive events since Russia‘s decision to invade Feb. 24, U.S. officials caution that the Russian operation is far from over.
Russian officials have spun their retreat from Kyiv as a redeployment of troops to eastern and southern Ukraine as the Kremlin continues its push to take full control of the eastern Donbas region. Russian forces also have continued their assault on the southern port city of Mariupol, where at least 5,000 civilians have been killed, the city’s mayor said Wednesday.
And Mr. Putin, as he showed in bloody campaigns to subdue Chechen rebels early in his 20 years in power, has shown a tendency to double down on military force when faced with early battlefield reverses.
Pentagon officials say some of the retreating Russian forces have crossed back into their own territory, while others have returned to neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally. Those troops appear to be preparing for renewed military action, likely in the Donbas.
“We have now seen the Russians have moved from the north [of Ukraine] into Belarus and into Russia for refit and resupply,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “We have seen indications that that refit and resupply is occurring.”
In northern Ukraine, the official said that “we are assessing that all the Russians have left.”
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Russia is likely to face pressure on diplomatic fronts as well, as countries across Europe have been expelling Russian diplomats in recent days and the U.N. General Assembly has scheduled a vote Thursday on a proposal to suspend Moscow’s membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
On Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told a House hearing Wednesday that the U.S. is prepared to boycott meetings at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia in November if Russia is allowed to participate.
“President Biden’s made clear, and I certainly agree with him, that it cannot be business as usual for Russia in any of the financial institutions,” Ms. Yellen said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Brussels for three days of meetings with NATO officials and fellow foreign ministers on ways to increase the pain for Russia over its decision to invade.
With the fight shifting to the east, both U.S. and Ukrainian leaders are preparing for a lengthy, bloody conflict. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley told Congress this week that he expects the battle in eastern Ukraine to last several years at least. Mr. Zelenskyy seemed to share a similar assessment Wednesday as he tried to rally his country to keep fighting.
“The fate of our land and of our people is being decided. We know what we are fighting for. And we will do everything to win,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, as Ukrainian authorities urged civilians in Donbas to evacuate ahead of the looming clash with rested and resupplied Russian troops.
Just as it did in the fight for Kyiv, Russia will enjoy a massive personnel and firepower advantage in the Donbas.
But with the U.S. and its NATO allies ramping up financial and military support for Ukraine, Russian troops are likely to again encounter stiff resistance from a motivated and increasingly confident Ukrainian defense. And there are clear signs that the reputation of the Russian war machine has been badly damaged over the past six weeks.
A Western official told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it may take Russia‘s forces a month to recover and regroup before mounting a full assault on the Donbas. The official said that nearly a quarter of Russia’s battalion tactical groups in the country have been rendered “noncombat effective.”
Such severe losses surely weren’t part of Mr. Putin‘s battle plan. Indeed, U.S. national security specialists reject Moscow’s claim that its true goal was always to take the Donbas, not to overrun Kyiv and control the entire country.
“Nothing I have read or seen, or anything that I’ve learned from running Russian operations and tracking Putin for 20 plus years, would indicate that was part of his strategy. That’s way too risky,” former CIA station chief in Moscow Daniel Hoffman told The Washington Times. “Putin’s goal was to take Kyiv. Brave Ukrainians stopped Russia’s war machine, but let’s be cognizant that Putin could turn his attention once again to Kyiv at a time of his choosing.
“The fact is that he went at Kyiv and destroyed multiple other cities, he has killed thousands of innocent civilians and caused billions of dollars worth of damage, for which Russia should be held accountable,” Mr. Hoffman said. “He didn’t have to do that. He’s risking his own regime’s security because this is his war. His personal fate is now tied to Russia’s barbaric war on Ukraine.”
That war continues to strain the Russian economy. In announcing the latest U.S. economic sanctions, White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said the moves will further crush Russia and will directly affect Mr. Putin‘s family.
“Anyone who looks at the Russian economy right now and thinks they’re bouncing back or showing some signs of life is, I think, missing the forests for the trees,” Mr. Deese said at a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Mr. Deese said the sanctions will target two of Russia’s largest banks, Sberbank and Alfa Bank, as well as Mr. Putin‘s children, Mariya Putina and Katerina Tikhonova. The wife and daughter of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also have been sanctioned.
Officials say the punitive measures will ramp up pressure on Russia to stop its war in Ukraine.
“Most estimates are the Russian economy is now on track to contract by 10% to 15% over the course of this year, which would be historic,” Mr. Deese said.
State-run Sberbank, Russia‘s largest state-owned lender, and Alfa Bank, the country’s largest privately owned bank, insisted Wednesday the new sanctions would not have a major impact on their operations.
“The sanctions will not have a significant impact on the bank’s operations and will not affect service to Russians as the system has already adapted to the previous restrictions,” Sberbank said in a statement.
But Mr. Blinken said the Kyiv retreat is a sign of deeper problems facing the Kremlin, both in the fighting and in what comes after the fighting stops.
“Russia didn’t leave Kyiv or the outskirts of Kyiv by its own free will,” Mr. Blinken said in an interview Wednesday with reporters on the Telegram messaging app’s Russian-language service. “It was pushed out and pushed back by Ukrainians and they were using many of the systems we provided them. What we’re focused on is making sure that we get to Ukraine the systems that they can use now and use effectively.”
• Haris Alic contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.