BUCHA, Ukraine — Russian forces, intent on overwhelming Kyiv with tanks and artillery when the fighting began, retreated under fire on a wide front on Saturday, leaving behind them dead soldiers. and burned vehicles, according to witnesses, Ukrainian officials, satellite imagery and military analysts.
The withdrawal presents the possibility of a major turning point in the six-week war – the defeat, at least for now, of Russia’s initial attempt to capture Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and an end to hope. quickly subjugate this nation.
“The original Russian operation was a failure and one of its central goals – capturing Kyiv – proved unattainable for Russian forces,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies. at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va., said in a phone interview Saturday.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian military attacks have continued unabated, and the Pentagon has warned that formations near Kyiv could be repositioned for new attacks.
To the south, an aid convoy organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross stalled on its way to bring some relief to the besieged city of Mariupol moving again. The hope, repeatedly frustrated by Russian shelling, was to provide emergency supplies to stranded civilians and evacuate hundreds of people who had endured weeks of shelling that left them short of food and water. drinking water, among corpses left in the streets.
As the Ukrainian army advances, the Ukrainian army is experiencing a devastating scene in the northern suburbs of Kyiv, with dozens of tanks wrecked in the streets, extensive damage to buildings and the bodies of soldiers. civilians are still lying unaccounted for.
Ukraine’s military confirmed on Saturday that it had captured Bucha, an important remote town north of Kyiv on the West bank of the Dnipro River, after Russian forces withdrew.
“They go from apartment to apartment collecting televisions and computers, loading them into tanks and leaving,” said retired Svetlana Semenova, of the departure of the Russians, which she said described as chaotic. “They left in a hurry.”
Several dozen people who had mostly lived in basements for a month surfaced to collect food – bags of potatoes and bread – brought in by Ukrainian soldiers.
Elena Shur, 43, an accountant for Ukraine’s national airline, said Ukrainian troops showed up in the town on Friday. The first sign of a Ukrainian presence was a civilian vehicle carrying soldiers passing through town waving a Ukrainian flag.
“We saw people on the street, and soldiers,” Ms. Shur said. “I cried.”
Reporters counted six civilian bodies on the streets and sidewalks of Bucha. It is not clear how they died, but the discarded packaging of a Russian military meal was next to a man who had been shot in the head.
The town was the site of a major Ukrainian ambush on a Russian armored column in the early days of the war, and a street was blocked off by dozens of burned tanks and trucks.
Despite that defeat, the Russians captured the town and held it for about a month, while also executing half a dozen members of the Territorial Defense Forces, the volunteer army many Ukrainians had joined when The war has begun, one resident said. a heavily mined part of town.
The Ukrainians have advanced at least 15 miles further north of Bucha, where they now fly the Ukrainian flag over former Russian checkpoints.
The conditions were clear for the Russian soldiers. Locals say they have gathered in abandoned apartments and looted food stores, while continuously suffering losses.
“According to our information, they are fleeing from all areas around Kyiv,” Sgt said. Ihor Zaichuk, commander of the 1st company of the 2nd Azov battalion in the Ukrainian army took part in the battle in Bucha.
“They can say on their own TV station, if they want, that they are the second strongest army in the world,” he said. “But they are no more.”
But cautiously, he said the Russians could return. “Only their commander knows if they will be refitted and turned back.”
According to an intelligence officer of the SBU, Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, Ukrainian forces are attacking villages dozens of miles from the capital on the east coast of Dnipro.
“The Russians are adjusting their goals to reality,” Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, said in an interview Saturday. “I think they know they’re in trouble, so I don’t think it’s a ruse to say they’re focused on Donbas, because in fact that’s all they can do.”
As for the retreat from around Kyiv, Mr. Freedman said, it shows that the Russians, having gone through the early stages of the war, “simply cannot hold all of their current positions outside of the zone. Donbas region,” in eastern Ukraine.
In the suburbs of Irpin, which Ukrainian forces had recaptured before Bucha, demining operations were in full swing on Saturday. Ukrainian officials said several civilian agencies were stuck to kill emergency-goers.
A group of military engineers, clad in heavy blue Kevlar armor, tied a rope around their bodies. They pulled it, to check if the movement triggered the booby trap. By the end of the day, however, the body was still there, and engineers couldn’t seem to be sure if it was safe to collect.
In the village of Dmytrivka, west of the capital, there are signs of a brutal and chaotic retreat by the Russians. On a forest road leading out of the village, nine tanks and armored vehicles were burned and burned at the scene of a tank battle three days earlier. The turrets and heavy guns of the two tanks lay to the side. The burned human remains of men can be seen inside their armored personnel carrier.
“They didn’t leave, they were destroyed,” said Valentina Yatsevich, 58, a villager who passed by the wreck to her home.
In Russia itself, the retreat has greatly worried war cheerleaders, with state television having previously raised expectations that Russian troops would capture Kyiv.
Semyon Pegov, a prominent pro-Kremlin war blogger with ties to the Russian military, posted a video on social messaging app Telegram on Saturday explaining that the move was “a retreat, not a retreat, not a retreat.” a flight”.
Russia’s supply lines were stretched and threatened with further losses as its troops, trying to survive in field conditions in the face of a much better fortified and supplied enemy, were forced to retreat, he said. speak.
It is an attempt, reflected by pro-Kremlin agencies, to explain why Russia appears to have sharply reduced its war targets in recent days, after taking losses. suffering in the war for the suburbs of Kyiv.
The Russian military said for the first time on Wednesday that it was “regrouping” forces in the Kyiv region, claiming that it had never planned to capture the city in the first place and that the mission Those soldiers were just suppressing the Ukrainian forces there.
In fact, Russian officials say, the main goal is to capture more territory in the Donbas region.
But Russia’s hardliners continue to call for an attack on Kyiv and see the withdrawal as a disappointment. “I don’t know why this decision was made,” Aleksandr Kots, a war correspondent for the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote on Telegram about Kyiv’s withdrawal. “The war has only just begun. Later we will find out who is right and who is at fault.”
The Kremlin remained defiant when state television published an interview with Dmitri S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, claiming that the United States was the root of evils in Europe. He expressed confidence that European countries will renew their relations with Russia once they are “a little more sober than American bourbon”.
Kofman, a Russian military expert, said Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv began quietly about a week ago and is now accelerating.
After the offensive on the capital stalled about two weeks ago, he said, there were only two options left: withdraw or let forces in the area try to hold back Ukrainian units and prevent them from sending reinforcements. in the east or south of the country. It now appears that the Russians are withdrawing, he said.
He said that throughout Ukraine, the Russian army lost about 2,000 destroyed, captured or abandoned equipment, including about 350 tanks.
In another development on Saturday, Pope Francis, visiting the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, came closer to blaming President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for the war in Ukraine than he had previously. In a speech to Maltese dignitaries and officials, the pope blamed a “man of power, sadly caught up in outmoded claims of nationalist interest” for creating “shadow of war” from eastern Europe.
Pope Francis has refused to explicitly blame Putin or Russia as the aggressor for a variety of reasons, including hoping the Vatican plays some role in a potential peace deal, and being wary of not being able to do so. endangering Roman Catholics worldwide. But on Saturday, it was clear he appeared to be talking about Mr Putin, who he said was “inciting and fueling conflict”.
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Bucha, Ukraine, and Neil MacFarquhar from New York. Report contributed by Anton Troianovski in Istanbul; Carlotta Gall in Dmytrivka, Ukraine; Megan Specia In Warsaw; Steven Erlanger in Brussels; and Jason Horowitz In Rome.