As Russia retreats from Kyiv, U.S. sees uglier fights to come in Ukraine

The ferocious resistance has claimed Russian materiel, momentum and troops’ lives in quantities that far exceeded expectations — forcing Moscow to scramble so much that now its armed forces have largely sapped readily available reinforcements in Ukraine, according to military analysts. That leaves Russian commanders in the short term to fight with the resources at their disposal. US officials believe that about two-thirds of the units that had been focused on Kyiv, the capital, are heading north, back to Belarus and Russia, for expected repositioning in Donbas.

The turn of events has presented Ukraine with an opportunity, observers say, to seize the upper hand. But doing so may come at a steep price, as Moscow shows no signs it is willing to abandon President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal, which US officials believe is to “weaken Ukraine as much as possible,” Sullivan said.

“All indications are that Russia will seek to surround and overwhelm Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine,” he added, noting that US assessments indicate Russia is preparing to deploy “dozens of additional battalion tactical groups constituting tens of thousands of soldiers” to Ukraine’s east. “We should be under no illusions that Russia will adjust its tactics, which have included and will likely continue to include wanton and brazen attacks on civilian targets,” Sullivan said.

Moscow, he said, will probably continue to conduct air and missile strikes throughout the country — in cities such as Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv and Lviv — as it refocuses on objectives in the east. Putin’s intent, Sullivan asserted, “is to cause military and economic damage and, frankly, to cause terror.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its sixth week, has claimed thousands of casualties on both sides. Images of scorched earth and death — including mass graves in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha that have further fueled accusations of war crimes — have punctuated the conflict’s toll. The staggering loss of life makes it unlikely that either side will be willing to strike a peace deal anytime soon, observers say.

“Ukraine has the momentum right now, and they’re less likely to make concessions,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. After the discovery of atrocities in Bucha, he added, “I think concessions are even less likely.” The issue for Russia “is going to be, the greater the casualties, the harder it is to stomach a compromised solution.”

Yet neither side has the ability to gain the upper hand swiftly. Ukraine’s forces will probably be able to redeploy to the eastern part of the country faster than Russia can reposition the assets it is withdrawing from Kyiv. But Ukraine does not have overwhelming operational control of its skies — nor the full use of the Russian machinery it captured to buoy its military operation.

On the Russian side, strategic consolidation of manpower and firepower in the east will not by itself solve Moscow’s mounting attrition problem.

“At this stage, the Russian force is tapped out. … Without national mobilization, there are very hard limits on what is available in terms of fighting power,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert with CNA, a think tank based in Washington. The only way out for Putin, Kofman said, is to make a massive policy shift, by admitting to the Russian people that the Ukrainian offensive is not a “special operation,” as he has claimed, but a full-fledged “war,” allowing him to call up additional forces from across the country.

“Russian political leadership will have a very significant choice to make,” Kofman continued. “They cannot sustain a war with Ukraine as a ‘special operation.’ They’re trying to have it both ways.”

It is unknown, however, whether the Russian leader is ready or willing to make that shift. “We’re not sure what the long-range goal is here for Mr. Putin,” a senior US defense official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon. Donbas is clearly the Russians’ priority, the official added, but it is “completely unclear” to US officials where things could go from there.

In his comments Monday, Sullivan predicted that Russia will try to capitalize on the battalion tactical groups it is moving from Kyiv to Ukraine’s east with efforts to defeat forces loyal to Kyiv in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. “In order to protect any territory it seizes in the east, we expect that Russia could potentially extend its force projection and presence even deeper into Ukraine. … At least that is their intention and their plan,” he added.

But doing so will take a long time — and some experts are skeptical that it will ever be possible for Putin to realize such goals.

“I just don’t see how, given the materiel constraints, they could hope to prosecute a long war with these large objectives,” Kofman said of the Russian side. “It’s just not sustainable. … They’ll run out of troops.”

Alex Horton contributed to this report.

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