Russia Ratchets Up Attacks Near Kyiv After Joe Biden Scolds Vladimir Putin

Russian forces outside Kyiv launched fresh offensive operations on Monday, the Ukrainian government reported, after President Joe Biden again scolded President Vladimir Putin for launching the invasion.

A Monday morning update from Ukraine's armed forces said Kyiv defenders "are deterring Russian troops trying to break through the defense from the northwest and east in order to take control of the key roads and settlements."

Neither the extent of the new attacks nor their ultimate goal were immediately clear.

Russian forces near the capital have been on the backfoot in recent days in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks. In some areas, the invaders were forced to retreat some 40 miles further from Kyiv.

Last week, the Pentagon said Russian troops near the capital were believed to be entrenching themselves in defensive positions, their advance on Kyiv stalled after one month of fierce fighting. The British Ministry of Defense noted that Russian troops positioned near the city risked being caught in a major encirclement.

New Russian operations outside Kyiv come days after the Russian military announced it would refocus its efforts in the east of Ukraine, where it intends to "liberate" the Donbas region which has been at the heart of the conflict since 2014.

Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff's Main Operational Directorate, claimed that the "main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished."

Securing the Donbas 'Republics'

Foreign analysis of the first month of fighting suggests a stunning failure for Russian troops, who were unable to quickly capture major Ukrainian cities and suffered severe casualties from intense Ukrainian resistance, supported by weapons and intelligence from Western backers.

Moscow's goal to decapitate the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime replacement now appears unattainable.

Instead, Russia looks set to focus on securing the independence and claimed territories of the self-declared Donbas "republics," perhaps as part of a larger "Novorossiya," encompassing occupied southern Ukraine and loyal to Moscow.

"The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which...makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas," Rudskoi said.

Kyiv Part of a Wider Strategy

Monday's Russian attacks around Kyiv could be an effort to pin Ukrainian forces around the capital, preventing them from reinforcing Ukrainian units in the south and east. There, Ukrainian forces are at risk of encirclement by Russian advances to their northwest and southwest.

An offensive in the Kyiv region could also be an effort to prevent disastrous encirclement by counterattacking Ukrainian forces. A resounding defeat outside the capital would be costly, humiliating, and give the Ukrainian government more leverage in ongoing peace talks.

"I think they cannot leave Kyiv just like that, so they need to keep pressure on otherwise it may look like defeat, so they keep sending equipment and forces," Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine's former defense minister, told Newsweek.

"I do not think the possibility of an assault in the very near future is high. They'll focus on the east."

Andriy Ryzhenko, a retired naval captain and former deputy chief of staff in Ukraine's navy, concurred. "Primarily, the current focus for the Russians is the east in Donbas and southeast also: Kherson, Melitopol, and Mariupol," he told Newsweek.

"Speaking about Kyiv, right now they probably would like to just strengthen their forces, because they have had significant casualties," Ryzhenko added. "Now they are moving some of their forces to Belarus, and they will replace their personnel and equipment. It can take them maybe a week or two, and after that they may try again to attack Kyiv."

"Currently we know they have a serious problem with mobilization inside of Russia," Ryzhenko said. "They have serious problems with equipment."

"I believe they are still thinking about keeping Kyiv busy, and also keeping Ukrainian forces there. They are removing troops now from Sumy and Kharkiv, and they are afraid that we may embark our forces to the south."

Kostiantyn Usov, a deputy mayor of Kyiv, told Newsweek the city's defenders are taking all new Russian operations seriously. "And we are really serious to not let them advance," Usov said.

The deputy mayor said it is "absolutely possible" that Ukrainian forces will push the Russians further away from the capital in the days to come, though he added "there are a lot 'ifs'."

"If Belarus doesn't join Russian efforts, if Russia doesn't use chemical weapons, let alone nukes," Usov said.

"I think you guys do not believe the Russians can press that button. But the more we kick their a**es, the more desperate the Kremlin becomes, the more possible we consider a further escalation, including one that involves unconventional arms."

Regime Change Denial

The renewed Russian activity near the capital follows Biden's charged speech in Poland on Saturday, in which he described stopping Moscow's invasion as "the task of our time."

At the end of the address, the president added: "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power." Biden's closing remark was widely interpreted as a call for regime change in Russia.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters after: "It's not up to the president of the U.S. and not up to the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia."

White House and State Department officials tried to downplay Biden's comments. A White House official told Reuters: "The President's point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin's power in Russia, or regime change."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, said the president meant Putin should not be "empowered to wage war" against any nations. He added: "We do not have a strategy of regime change."

America's European allies also distanced themselves from Biden's remarks. British Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi said it was "up to the Russian people" to decide Putin's future.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said he "wouldn't use those terms" and suggested Biden's tone may undermine peace efforts.

"We want to stop the war that Russia launched in Ukraine, without waging war and without escalation," said Macron, who has been criticized by some observers for his continued fruitless communication with Putin throughout the invasion.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said neither NATO nor the U.S. was planning regime change in Russia. "Democracy, freedom and justice have a future everywhere," Scholz said on Sunday, adding it is up to the Russian people "to fight for this freedom."

Ukraine soldier pictured in Kyiv Russian shelling
A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard near a burning warehouse hit by a Russian shell in the suburbs of Kyiv on March 24, 2022. FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images