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Is the Russian Army’s Withdrawal from Kyiv Another Deception?

On Tuesday, March 22, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin held a press conference following the conclusion of negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators in Istanbul, Turkey. At that press meeting, he read out a statement, which appeared to suggest that Russia is, in fact, agreeing that the “decapitation attack” launched in Kyiv during the outbreak of hostilities was not successful. (Note that it was the defense deputy who was the one who made the announcement, not Putin's preferred judge, the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who hasn't been visible since March 11.)

“Due to the fact that the talks on preparing an agreement on Ukraine's neutrality and non-nuclear status as well as on providing Ukraine with security guarantees are moving to the practical sphere, considering the principles discussed during the meeting today, in order to bolster mutual confidence and create the necessary conditions for the further talks and the achievement of the final goal–the coordination and the signing of the aforementioned agreement–the Russian Defense Ministry has made a decision to cardinally, several-fold decrease the military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernigov,” the official stated. “We are proceeding from the premise that Kyiv will make corresponding basic decisions and conditions should be created for the further normal work.”

This statement echoes the strategic plan’s direction laid out by the director of operations for the Russian General Staff during a briefing held last week. The goal was to decrease the force directed at Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities in northern Ukraine and to focus on the military's efforts to consolidate Russian control over the Donbas and the area known as a “land bridge” to Crimea. Once that was accomplished, the Russians would settle in the region and await a peace accord.

There's a lot more to this story than the Russians claim. The fact that is hard to ignore is that Ukrainian counter-offensives have made certain zones unsuitable for Russian forces.

Nathan Ruser makes fantastic maps with large areas of color, and he outlines the locations of Russian and Ukrainian zones according to which country’s troops control them; they are larger than the roads that the troops are on. The green areas of the map are not in the hands of either of the sides.

In the northwest region of Kyiv, Ukrainian advances from east and west could create the possibility of a pocket that could be filled with Russian forces. In northern Ukraine lies Chernihiv, an administration center. It was in the middle of a siege just within the last few days. Furthermore, Russian troops located on the eastern edge of Kyiv are at risk of being isolated following a Ukrainian attack that cut off supply routes. Further to the east are cities such as Sumy (or Sum), which was also enclosed but is now able to access Ukrainian territory, and Kharkiv, which was almost completely surrounded but also has supply routes open to Ukrainian territory.

What the Russians would like to accomplish is pull many of their forces along the Kyiv-Sumy-Kharkiv axis back into Russia and reconstitute them with vehicles taken from storage depots, along with the 100,000 reservists called up. Then they'll move the units to the east and strengthen their forces within the Donbas region.

Incredibly, it is interesting to note that the Ukrainians have seized draftees from the Donbas “republics” near Kharkiv, which suggests the Russians have moved the militia unit that was less capable from the Donbas and replaced it.

The big-brain-thinkers in the White House publicly doubt that the withdrawal is actually happening.

“We need to see what the Russians actually do before we trust solely what they've said,” Kate Bedingfield, director of communications for the White House, said during a briefing on Tuesday. “We have no reason to believe” Moscow has retreated from its plan to invade Kyiv. “No one should be fooled,” she stated, adding that “the world should be prepared for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine.”

It’s likely a negotiation tactic using hardball that they believe will influence the outcome of a deal without them having to become militarily engaged. It's hard to comprehend why Russians would not be hesitant to begin another offensive in the same territory but this time in the face of a well-prepared and determined defense. This is not to say that the Russians aren't willing to do this; however, most military commanders will not be able to seize the same land twice.

There is no evidence to suggest that the strategy will be successful since it's difficult to see how Russia can generate the capability to fulfill its goal. But it is true that the Russians appear to be ready to test the plan and have developed a story to justify their retreat from Kyiv. The issue with narratives lies in the fact that they have to be constant.

In a series of public announcements, Russian President Vladimir Putin has laid out his goals to end the conflict in Ukraine: the government needs to be de-Nazified (you can read this as a change in the regime); the country needs to be demilitarized (this means that the Ukrainian army should be removed); Ukraine should renounce joining NATO or permitting foreign troops to be on its territory; Ukraine must acknowledge the sovereignty of Russia over Crimea; and Ukraine must acknowledge the “independence” of the fake republics Russia created in the Donbas.

After the deputy defense minister made his speech, the defense ministry uploaded the full text of the announcement to Russia's top social-media website, vk.com. Chrome will translate the statement and the comments. 

This isn't the first time that the Russian Army has been pounded by a less powerful opponent. When the spokeswoman of the regime, Maria Zarahova, announced it on her Telegram channel, she was taken to the ground. Not just Rando Russians were in opposition–so were Putin's allies.

This all points to the issues discussed over the past few weeks–through Putin setting out firm marks of victory repeatedly and ingraining expectations in the minds of his followers on which to follow through. Russia has reached the point that it must fight to get what it had already accomplished by February 21 without the need for war. Today, the public statement has been signed by the Russian president to preserve the government that Putin has accused of being made up of “Nazis” and “drug addicts.” Putin has agreed to leave Ukraine’s army in place. There's nothing to suggest Ukraine not being a member of NATO. There's not a word about Donbas autonomy or the annexed territory of Crimea. One message is there: “We're withdrawing away from Kyiv.”

Just like President Joe Biden’s wise remarks aren't doing anything positive; instead, they are making it more difficult to not just bring the Ukraine conflict to an end but prevent it from expanding.

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