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Defense Official Not Ready to Call Russian Activity in Ukraine a Retreat or Withdrawal

March 29, 2022 | BY C. Todd Lopez , DOD News

The Russians have said they are withdrawing forces from around Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv, and so far, reports show that some — but not many — Russian forces have indeed moved away from the area. But where those troops are going and why is likely less about signaling a willingness to end a bloody and illegal war, and more about repositioning of forces elsewhere to focus on alternative and potentially more successful military objectives.  

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"Has there been some movement by some Russian units away from Kyiv in the last day or so? Yeah. We think so. Small numbers," said Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby during a briefing today. "But we believe that this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal, and that we all should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine."  

A real commitment, a believable one, Kirby said, would involve a complete withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine.  

"They have an opportunity here, an opportunity that they have missed, many, many times over the last month to end this war and to do it responsibly and to negotiate in good faith," Kirby said. "We hope that they'll do that. But the war could end today if Mr. Putin did the right thing and actually did withdraw all his forces from Ukraine and respect Ukrainian sovereignty."  

From the onset, Kirby said, the Russians have attempted to mislead the world and its own people about its intentions for Ukraine.  

"We've seen that Russia has attempted now for going on a month to sell this war of theirs to its domestic audience as a 'liberation of the Donbas,'" Kirby said. "However, the intensified rhetoric over the last year and in the lead-up to Russia's invasion, demonstrated that the Kremlin's real intent was to overthrow the democratically elected government and to occupy or annex large portions of Ukraine."  

Kirby outlined a three-pronged approach for how the Defense Department has assessed Russia might have planned to achieve that objective.  

In the north and northeast, he said, the Russians focused efforts on the cities of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv.  

A map of Ukraine.
Ukraine Map
A map of Ukraine.
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 220329-D-D0439-001

"That whole northern grouping was really designed against the capital city — the effort to cut off Kyiv," he said.

Down in the southern part of Ukraine, coming out of Crimea, he said the Russians split forces northeast against Mariupol and then northwest to Kherson, where they also made an attempt to take Mykolayiv — something they've been unable to do.  

In the east, in the Donbas, he said, there has already been conflict there for eight years now, and the Russians have put more resources there to further their objectives.  

All of those efforts, Kirby said, were believed to be part of a Russian effort to subjugate Ukraine. But so far, the effort has not been successful.  

"Now we think that they're going to prioritize the east," he said. "They have been stalled in the north, and the progress in the early days they had made in the south — they had made progress — now that stalled out."  

Despite Russian promises to move out of Kyiv, Kirby said, the city can't be considered safe. It's still at risk from continued Russian aggression.  

"Russia has failed in its objective of capturing Kyiv," he said. "It's failed in its objective of subjugating Ukraine. But they can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including on Kyiv. We see that even today in continued airstrikes against the capital city."  

A man stands behind a lectern and addresses seated individuals.
Press Briefing
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby speaks during a press briefing, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., March 29, 2022.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany Chase
VIRIN: 220329-F-BM568-1079

Kirby said it's unclear now what actions Russia will take next in Ukraine, or what their ultimate goals there have metastasized into. Briefings from the Russian Ministry of Defense, he said, have been misleading and amount to efforts to recast recent missteps as intermediary steps to its ultimate goals.  

"It's too early to judge what additional actions the Kremlin may take," Kirby said. "No amount of spin can mask what the world has witnessed over the past month — and that's the courage and the military prowess of Ukraine's armed forces and its people, which are proving to be more than what Russia bargained for in its unprovoked and unjustified invasion."  

Underlying that military prowess, Kirby said, has been years of military training for the Ukrainians by U.S., allied and partner nations, as well as the continued material support being provided — support he said will continue.  

"The United States, together with our allies and partners ... are going to continue to provide that support going forward to meet their security needs as they bravely stand up to this Russian aggression," he said.