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Russian troops leaving Kyiv area as Moscow focuses more on eastern Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of a destroyed Russian armored personnel carrier in a village on the frontline of the northern part of the Kyiv region on Monday. Russia says its troops are starting to withdraw from Kyiv, thought the Pentagon believes they will likely be deployed elsewhere in Ukraine.
Anatolii Stepanov
/
AFP via Getty Images
A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of a destroyed Russian armored personnel carrier in a village on the frontline of the northern part of the Kyiv region on Monday. Russia says its troops are starting to withdraw from Kyiv, thought the Pentagon believes they will likely be deployed elsewhere in Ukraine.

Updated March 31, 2022 at 12:58 PM ET

Five weeks into the war, Russia is pulling back some of its troops back from areas around the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and appears to be ramping up military operations in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Roughly 20 percent of the Russian troops outside Kyiv have begun withdrawing in the past day or so, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. These include frontline troops that were as close as 10 miles from the city center.

The troops are heading north towards Belarus, and some have already crossed the border, according to the Pentagon. But U.S. officials are calling it a "repositioning" rather than a permanent withdrawal.

"Our assessment would be that they're going to refit these troops, resupply them and then probably employ them elsewhere else in Ukraine," Kirby said on Wednesday.

In the first two weeks of the war, Russian troops advanced to the outskirts of Kyiv, a city with a pre-war population of around 3 million.

The U.S. and the Ukrainians said it was clear that the Russians wanted to oust President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government. But the Russians have been stalled for three weeks, and are now pulling back from their initial plan.

Still, most Russian forces near Kyiv remain in place, and Russia continues to target the city with long-range artillery on the ground and airstrikes from above.

So while Russian forces may not be able to take Kyiv at this point, they are primed to keep up this long-range bombardment indefinitely.

In addition, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in remarks Thursday that there is reason to take Russia's announcements with a grain of salt.

"We have heard the recent statements that Russia will scale down military operations around Kyiv and in northern Ukraine," he said. "But Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions. So we can only judge Russia on its actions, not on its words."

If Russia redeploys the troops, eastern Ukraine is seen as a likely destination. Russia has said this week it will focus on that region and both Ukrainian and U.S. intelligence say they're seeing operations intensify there.

Stoltenberg also cited intelligence on Thursday that suggests Russia is trying to "regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region" in the east.

Russian troops are still fighting on the edges of the hard-hit coastal city of Mariupol, and taking it would give Russia control of a substantial swathe of Ukrainian territory — from the Donbas in the east, down the southeastern coast, through the Crimean peninsula in the south. That would allow Russia to potentially cut off Ukrainian forces to prevent them from defending other parts of the country.

The big question remains: What will Russian President Vladimir Putin do next, and what are his ultimate goals in Ukraine?

The White House said Wednesday it believes Putin is getting limited or even bad information from advisers who don't want to give him negative news on the state of the war or Russia's economy.

After the White House's statement, the Pentagon said it concurred and then a top British intelligence official agreed in a rare public speech. That coordinated announcement is reminiscent of the kinds of intelligence leaks that came from the U.S. and its allies before Russia first invaded last month — and that intelligence did turn out to be accurate.


This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.