Russian Redeployment From Kiev Signals Lethal Eastern, Southern Offensive

Russian forces leaving the suburbs around Kyiv have left a trail of detritus behind that includes civilian corpses, burnt-out buildings, disabled infrastructure and entire columns of their destroyed military hardware.

But officials and analysts on both sides of this conflict see this as a tactical move — not a retreat, but a redeployment — and one with serious consequences for Ukraine should it prove successful.

"We believe that Russia is revising its war aims," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at a White House press briefing on April 4. "Russia is repositioning its forces to concentrate its offensive operations in eastern and parts of southern Ukraine."

"All indications are that Russia will seek to surround and overwhelm Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine," he added.

Bucha Ukraine Devastation
Residents walk amid debris and destroyed Russian military vehicles on a street on April 06, 2022 in Bucha, Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has accused Russian forces of committing a "deliberate massacre" as they occupied and eventually retreated from Bucha, 25km northwest of Kyiv. Hundreds of bodies have been found in the days since Ukrainian forces regained control of the town. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Sullivan comments followed those of Russian officials last week.

Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov told a press briefing on March 30 that "on the Kyiv and Chernihiv fronts, planned force regroupings are taking place."

Konashenkov went on to claim that the aborted Russian operation around Kyiv had "created the necessary conditions for the final stage of the operation to liberate the people's republics of the Donbas."

The "people's republics" to which Konashenkov was referring are Russian-backed breakaway territories. The Russian Federation is the only U.N. member state to have formally recognized their independence.

According to a Russian defense expert, the redeployments presage a new offensive plan.

"Russia's aim for the next phase of the war is to push Ukrainian forces out of the Donbas, and then out of the south," Vladislav Shurygin, a retired captain in the Russian army and the defense editor at the Russian journal Zavtra, told Newsweek. "The first strike will be to take Mariupol in order to solidify control over the east, ideally by the middle of May."

"After that, it will become possible to push westwards through Mykolaiv to Odesa so as to cut Ukraine off from the sea," he added. "Optimistically speaking, that could be achieved by the end of August."

An American military analyst agreed with this assessment of Russian goals for the campaign.

In a Twitter thread posted on April 5, Lieutenant General (ret.) Mark Hertling envisioned a similar campaign, sketching out a rough outline of a potential Russian offensive in which the battle plan would aim to encircle Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, then push south from around Kharkiv to capture key transportation hubs in eastern Ukraine. After that, a westward attack toward the key Black Sea port of Odesa would be easier to support logistically.

Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling foresees an intense battle in eastern Ukraine and beyond.

Unlike Shurygin, however, Hertling is pessimistic about the Russian army's prospects for success. The Russian troops redeploying from Ukraine's north, he wrote, have been "in intense combat for over six weeks. Physical, mental, psychological, and emotional factors have taken their toll. Many have committed criminal actions."

"These troops, in my view, are done," he added.

Hertling pointed out Ukrainian military advantages in morale and supply as potentially decisive factors in the coming battle.

"They have massive support from civilians, politicians, each other," he wrote. "And they're fighting on their own ground."

Although the war is shifting away from the capital, the importance of southern Ukraine to the economic vitality of the country as a whole is deeply appreciated in Kyiv.

"He who controls the sea controls international trade, and without access to the port of Odesa, it would become much more difficult for the Ukrainian economy to sell its wheat and steel on the world market," Dr. Tymofiy Mylovanov, head of the Kyiv School of Economics, told Newsweek.

"This economic factor is one of the reasons why Odesa has been a military objective from the very start of the Russian invasion," he added.

President Zelensky warned the Greek Parliament on April 7 of what could happen.

Russian forces, he warned, "can do to Odesa exactly what they have done to Mariupol."