Ukrainian officials have announced that Russian ground forces have fully withdrawn from areas surrounding Sumy, which comes just days after Kyiv and Chernihiv were declared free.
Last week, negotiators from Russia and Ukraine met in Turkey to discuss options to end the Russian invasion. At that time, both sides appeared to have made concessions to their original demands, with Ukraine signaling it would give up joining NATO as Russia shifted away with its plan of “denazifying” and “demilitarizing the country.” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin stated that in order to keep negotiations alive and build mutual trust, Russian military activity in Kyiv and Chernihiv would be reduced. Shortly afterwards, there were indications of Russian withdrawals around Chernobyl, which was handed back over to Ukrainian nuclear operators on Thursday. By Saturday, Ukraine declared that Russian forces had fully withdrawn from the Kyiv Oblast and Ukrainian forces began moving into the towns of Bucha and Hostomel, which were captured by Russians in the first days of the invasion. Irpin had already been captured by a Ukrainian counter offense last Monday.
By the time Ukrainian forces moved into Bucha, mass graves and scores of killed civilians, some of which appeared to have been tied up and executed, were discovered around the city. President Zelensky called the killings a “genocide,” further stating “This is how the Russian state will now be perceived. This is your image. Your culture and human appearance perished together with the Ukrainian men and women to whom you came.” Zelensky added that “Concentrated evil has come to our land. Murderers. Torturers. Rapists. Who call themselves an army. And who deserve only death after what they did. I want every mother of every Russian soldier to see the bodies of the killed people in Bucha, in Irpin, in Hostomel.” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted out that he is “deeply shocked by the images of civilians killed in Bucha, Ukraine.” He added that “It is essential that an independent investigation leads to effective accountability.”
Bucha massacre was deliberate. Russians aim to eliminate as many Ukrainians as they can. We must stop them and kick them out. I demand new devastating G7 sanctions NOW:
-Oil, gas, coal embargo
-Close all ports to Russian vessels and goods
-Disconnect all Russian banks from SWIFT pic.twitter.com/oZkCAETCQp
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) April 3, 2022
Russia has denied responsibility for the killings, saying that Ukraine either killed the civilians during counter attacks in the area or staged everything. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that “experts at the Ministry of Defense have identified signs of video fakes and various fakes” and has called for a UN Security Council Meeting to talk about “Ukrainian provocations.” Russia’s Ministry of Defense released a statement saying that “All the photos and videos published by the Kyiv regime, allegedly testifying to the ‘crimes’ of Russian servicemen in the city of Bucha, Kyiv region, are another provocation” that were “another staged performance by the Kyiv regime for the Western media.” It also added that “During the time that Russian armed forces were in control of this settlement, not a single local resident suffered from any violent actions.” Maxar satellite imagery shows that the mass graves at the Church of St. Andrew & Pyervozvannoho All Saints started to be dug on March 10, which is over a week before Russian forces withdrew from the region.
Ukrainian civilians' bodies have been found littered around Bucha, other areas in NW Kyiv region. A mass grave was found at Church of St. Andrew & Pyervozvannoho All Saints. Satellite images from @Maxar show the first signs of excavation were on March 10. Latest images March 31. pic.twitter.com/6lKxRYEDd7
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) April 3, 2022
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials also reported over the weekend that Russian forces have fully withdrawn from Chernihiv and reported on Monday that Russian forces had also withdrawn from Sumy. Russian withdrawals from northern Ukraine have been widely considered as tactical retreats to regroup, rearm, and reposition for operations to the south and east. The outbreak of the invasion saw Russian forces quickly move into areas surrounding the cities of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy. Ukraine and NATO both agreed that Russia’s original invasion plan was to move quickly into Kyiv to overthrow Zelensky to install a more Russian-aligned government. Operations to the north quickly stalled, marred by an inability to break through Ukrainian defense positions and logistical issues. Russia failed to assert air dominance over the north due to a high concentration of anti-air defenses and instead relied on missile strikes to target key Ukrainian infrastructure and military targets. The failure to capture the Hostomel airport in a functioning state also resulted in Russian forces not being able to use the facility to ferry additional troops and equipment to the frontlines efficiently. All and all, Operations north of Kyiv were unstustainable. Both cities of Chernihiv and Sumy were also unable to be breached due to heavy resistance in the first week of the conflict. With that, Russian forces relied on rocket fire to target the cities from a distance. Capturing the two cities also did not align with Russia’s tactical objectives, since their main focus was capturing Kyiv and resources/ manpower could not be spared. This could be seen when Russian forces encircled the cities and then pushed past them towards Kyivs east in Brovary.
On March 18, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that the “first phase” of the invasion was complete and that they would now solely focus on securing the entirety of the Donbas region. According to Russia, assaults on major cities were to “block” and “reduce” Ukraine’s ability to counter operations in Donbas. Ukraine and NATO believe that this announcement was a strategic reframing of the conflict, in which Russia could fall back and focus on the Donbas region if it failed to take over Kyiv. The announcement distanced itself from the original objects of full “denazification” and “demilitarization,” which by this point seemed nearly impossible with the pace the conflict was going.
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) April 3, 2022
So where will the conflict go now? Ukraine still fears that Russian forces could try and make a second attempt at capturing Kyiv, but it is mostly likely that these resources will be shifted to consolidate the southern and eastern fronts towards Kherson and Donbas. Russian forces around Kharkiv have already begun pushing east to back sparatist forces in Luhansk, which had only had small gains pushing north. Russian forces still control large portions of Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions, however, they face growing partisan attacks and protests in captured cities. Ukrainian counter offensives have reversed Russian gains past Kherson towards Mykolaiv although operations pushing north have slowed. Russia’s greatest success in the conflict has been cutting off Ukrainian access to the Azov Sea by bridging sepratist forces to the east and Russian forces to the west in areas around Mariupol. The city remains under siege and Russian forces continue to make daily gains within the center parts of the city. From there, they are pushing north towards the Donbass frontline, which has also largely remained unchanged the entire conflict. We will likely see a pincer move in an attempt to break up the Donbas frontline and secure the remaining parts of Donbas that are still under Ukrainian control.