Roughly two-thirds of Russian forces used to target Ukraine's capital departed Kyiv and are refitting in Belarus, a senior defense official speaking on background said today.
"We assess that they are largely consolidating themselves in Belarus prior to some level of redeployment back into Ukraine," the official told Pentagon reporters.
That does mean, however, that about a third of the forces President Vladimir Putin used to invade his neighbor are still near Kyiv. The official cannot predict when or if the nearby group of remaining Russian units will retreat to join the other of their forces already consolidated in Belarus.
"What we continue to believe is that they're going to be refit, resupplied, perhaps maybe even reinforced with additional manpower, and then sent back into Ukraine to continue fighting elsewhere," the official said. "Our best assessment … is that they will be applied in the eastern part of the country in the Donbas region."
Putin launched more than 125 battalion tactical groups into Ukraine Feb. 24. Looking across the country, the majority of those units are still in Ukraine.
In Bucha, a town on the western outskirts of Kyiv and scene of heavy fighting, Ukrainian troops found evidence of Russian murders of local civilians. "We can't independently confirm the reports of atrocities in Bucha," the official said. "We have no reason whatsoever to refute the Ukrainian claims about these atrocities. Clearly, they are deeply, deeply troubling."
American officials warned that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would be brutal, "and they have proven to be that and then some," the official said.
While the Russian retreat from Kyiv is heartening, no one is calling this a Ukrainian victory; though, Putin's goal to overthrow Ukraine's elected government has been thwarted. "Mr. Putin made it clear he didn't … acknowledge Ukrainian sovereignty," the official said. "He made it very clear that he was after regime change in Ukraine. A key piece of achieving that regime change was taking the capital city. He has failed to do that. … They're moving away from Kyiv."
But that does not mean Kyiv is out of danger. The capital can still be hit by air attacks and long-range fires. "Nobody is taking this [Russian retreat] for granted," he said. "Nobody is spiking any football here. The truth is, we're not sure exactly what the long-range goal here is."
In the meantime, the United States is delivering weapons and supplies to the embattled Ukrainian forces. There is a new $300 million pot of money that can be used to get these needed capabilities into Ukraine, a process that is being rushed.
"Everything we're doing with respect to Ukraine is being expedited — everything," he said.