Russian units suffering big losses pull out of Ukraine, UK military intelligence says

LVIV, Ukraine/KYIV OUTSKIRTS March 30 (Reuters) – Some Russian units suffering heavy losses in Ukraine had been forced to return home and to neighbouring Belarus, British military intelligence said a day after Russia promised to scale down military operations around Kyiv and another city.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacted with scepticism to the offer made by Russia during negotiations in Istanbul aimed at de-escalating a conflict now in its fifth week.

His forces have halted the invasion on most fronts, and some analysts noted that Russia’s promise to reduce fighting mostly covered areas where it has been losing ground, even as civilians remained trapped in besieged cities in the south and east.

Heavy losses and the withdrawal of some troops was impacting Russian operations, said Britain’s defence ministry.

“Such activity is placing further pressure on Russia’s already strained logistics and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is having re-organising its units in forward areas within Ukraine,” it said in an assessment on Wednesday.

Russia is likely to continue to compensate for its reduced ground manoeuvre capability through mass artillery and missile strikes, the ministry added.

Russia has failed to capture any major city in its month-long invasion, while Ukrainian forces have made advances, recapturing territory from Russian troops on the outskirts of Kyiv, in the northeast and in the south.

One recaptured area on a road towards the village of Rusaniv was littered with burnt-out tanks and bits of Russian uniforms. Surrounding houses were destroyed.

Russia calls its assault a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. The West says it launched an unprovoked invasion. The largest attack on a European nation since World War Two has killed or injured thousands, forced nearly 4 million to flee abroad and pummeled Russia’s economy with sanctions.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said the offer to scale back some military operations was a confidence building step for the ongoing negotiations with Ukrainian officials in Istanbul.

“In order to increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations and achieving the ultimate goal of agreeing and signing (an) agreement, a decision was made to radically, by a large margin, reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions,” Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin told reporters.

Fomin made no mention of other areas that have seen heavy fighting, including around Mariupol in the southeast, Sumy and Kharkiv in the east and Kherson and Mykolaiv in the south.

“Ukrainians are not naive people,” President Zelenskiy said late on Tuesday.

“Ukrainians have already learned during these 34 days of invasion, and over the past eight years of the war in Donbass, that the only thing they can trust is a concrete result.”

MAJOR OFFENSIVE POSSIBLE

Russia has started moving very small numbers of troops away from positions around Kyiv in a move that is more of a repositioning than a retreat or a withdrawal from the war, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

“We all should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine,” spokesman John Kirby told a news briefing. “It does not mean that the threat to Kyiv is over.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defence earlier said: “It is highly likely that Russia will seek to divert combat power from the north to their offensive in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east”.

Reuters could not immediately verify the claims made by either side.

The Moscow-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine may consider joining Russia once it controls all of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, its leader was quoted as saying. Kyiv has said any such move would have no legal basis.

In Ukraine’s besieged seaport Mariupol, thousands of civilians may have died, the head of the United Nations human rights mission in the country told Reuters on Tuesday.

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