Key Judgements

I. Defeated by Ukrainian maneuver defenses and counter-attacks, Russian forces have withdrawn from northwest Kyiv, and are reducing their presence in Chernihiv province. Returned to their launch points in Belarus, the Russian military formations that are still operational or can be regenerated will most likely be redeployed to supercharge Russia’s offensive against the Ukrainian Joint Force Operation (JFO) in Donbas. 

II. Downsizing the campaign to focus on Donbas is a logical adjustment following Russia’s failure to take Kyiv or any other operational-strategic objective of this war. Defaulting back to Donetsk and Luhansk enables Russia to save face by pretending it was “about Donbas all along” (as already framed by the Russian Ministry of Defense). 

III. The campaign for Donbas will decide if and how Russia will continue prosecuting the invasion of Ukraine. If successful and with forces to spare, Moscow will most likely re-escalate its ambitions: capture more territory in the east, resume the Odesa campaign, or return to Kyiv. Southern Ukraine will remain an active front despite the focus on Donbas. 

RUSSIAN FORCES RETREAT FROM KYIV AND CHERNIHIV

NORTHWEST KYIV

1. Echelons of the 29th, 35th, and 36th Combined Arms Armies (CAA) – part of the Eastern Military District (MD) – and the 76th Guards Air Assault Division (West MD) have indeed withdrawn from NEW Kyiv to Belarus between 31 March and 1 April. Ukrainian forces have moved to secure Hostomel (31 March), Borodyanka (31 March), Dymer, Bucha, and Ivankiv (1 April). By withdrawing from Ivankiv, a strategic road junction linking Kyiv to Belarus via the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), the Russian military forfeits its main axis of attack on Ukraine’s capital. 

2. Russian forces in NW-Kyiv were in a state of combat ineffectiveness since 15-16 March, and withdrew to escape a likely encirclement by the Ukrainian military. The last major offensive launched by Russian forces in this area took place on March 9. In contrast, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in the past ten days that cleared the Zhytomyr-Kyiv highway of Russian units, recaptured Irpin (28 March), and pressured Borodoyanka (western flank of the Bucha pocket). The high tempo and effectiveness of Ukrainian maneuver defense, counter-logistics operations, and anti-armor attacks have obliterated Russia’s main axis of attack and denied Moscow the strategic objective of its invasion: seizing Kyiv.  

BUCHA MASSACRE

3. Russian forces left behind a massacre in Bucha, videos circulating on social media show. Upon arrival, Ukrainian forces found mass graves, and scores of civilians’ corpses strewn throughout Bucha. Close inspection of footage shows that many of the victims were military-aged males and died of headshot wounds while having their hands and feet tied together – suggesting a likely execution by Russian troops. Women are also among the dead, and many have reportedly been raped – an increasingly widespread practice in Russian-occupied territories. Over 300 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Bucha.

NORTHEAST KYIV AND CHERNIHIV

4. Preliminary information indicate that the 41st CAA (Central MD) has mostly withdrawn from Chernihiv province. It is however unclear if all forces have withdrawn as of 4 April. Ukrainian counterattacks have lifted the siege of Chernihiv and re-established the lines of communications (LOCs) to Kyiv, as of 31 March. Clearance operation towards the Belarussian border are underway. 

5. Ukrainian gains have also been noted on the H07 segment between Brovary and Nova Basan, an area vacated by the 2nd CAA (Central MD) on 1 April. Elements of the 90th Guards Tank Army (Central MD) have also pulled back from the surrounding area. For reference, Russian forces never had effective territorial control of this AO. Instead, they attempted to secure the main roads towards Kyiv and push forces towards the capital’s eastern flank. Russian LOCs were regularly ambushed by Ukrainian forces, resulting in heavy losses and supply problems for the 2nd CAA. 

6. The 1st Guards Tank Army/TGA (Western MD) maintains positions around Sumy, although no significant Russian offensives have been noticed recently. On the contrary, on 27 March, the Ukrainian military splintered the connection between the 1st TGA and the 4th Guards Tank Division (Western MD) operating northwest of Kharkiv. Early signs indicate that some Western MD formations on the Sumy front are also pulling back to Russia. 

RUSSIA WILL FOCUS ON DONBAS

7. The Eastern and Central MD formations as well as the Air Assault units pulled out of the Kyiv-Chernihiv line and are still operational or can be regenerated will most likely be redeployed to supercharge Russia’s offensive against the Ukrainian Joint Force Operation (JFO) in Donbas. There are also indications that fresh battalion tactical groups (BTGs), which have not participated in the war, will also be committed to the Donbas front. Freshly enlisted conscripts might also be deployed to bolster Russia’s force density in Donbas. 

8. With the war entering its second stage, Russian forces will focus on conquering the rest of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (Russia currently controls 93% of Luhansk and 54% of Donetsk), as the Russian MoD signaled on 25 March. Downsizing the campaign to focus on Donbas is a logical adjustment following Russia’s failure to take Kyiv or any other operational-strategic objective of this campaign. Defaulting back to Donbas also allows the Russian leadership to save face and pretend it was about “Donetsk and Luhansk” all along, sweeping the disaster in Kyiv-Chernihiv under the rug. 

9. Donbas is the only area where Russian forces have managed to sustain a steady, uninterrupted advance in Ukrainian territory since the invasion began. Elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army and 144th Motorized Rifle Division (Western MD) recently captured Izium, a key city in the Donetsk river valley. From Izium, the Russian military could pursue a link-up with the Southern MD units that have captured nearly all of Luhansk province. Together, the two groupings can attempt to envelope Ukrainian positions on two axes: Sievierodonetsk-Lysychansk and Sloviansk-Kramatorks-Horlivka. Support is also expected from the Southern MD units that have stagnated in Zaporizhzhia province.

10. Mariupol remains the current key effort in Russia’s Donbas campaign. Attacked by Chechen formations, naval infantry from the 58th CAA, and a motorized regiment from the 102nd Motorized Rifle Division (Southern MD), Mariupol will likely fall in the next weeks. Although local resistance has been incredible, the heavy attrition imposed by indiscriminate Russian air and artillery strikes will most likely bring success for the invading force. The fall of Mariupol will complete Russia’s conquest of the Azov coastline. 

11. The campaign for Donbas will decide if and how Russia will continue prosecuting the invasion of Ukraine. If successful and with forces to spare, Moscow will most likely re-escalate its ambitions: capture more territory in the east, resume the Odesa campaign, or return to Kyiv. More territory under Russian control will increase President Putin’s leverage over Kyiv. Since Russia failed to seize Kyiv and control the country directly, it must now seek to coerce Ukraine by amputating parts of its and threatening to take more. 

SOUTHERN UKRAINE REMAINS A TARGET

12. Southern Ukraine will remain an active front despite Moscow’s newfound focus on Donbas. Russian forces from Crimea have captured nearly 90 percent of Kherson province, including the city, and more than half of Zaporizhzhia province. However, Russian forces failed to cross the Bug river and advance towards Odesa (they were crushed at Voznesensk), and their assault on Mykolaiv was repelled by Ukrainian forces. As of 22 March, the Ukrainians pushed the fight back to Kherson.

13. Russian forces in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces will likely be allocated new objectives supporting or aligning with the Donbas campaign. Their new posture could include securing Kherson, probing attacks on Mykolaiv, or pursuing other goals. A renewed push towards Odesa is unlikely at this point in time. However, we assess the Odesa campaign has been terminated for good but only snoozed. Should the tide swing back on Russia’s side, the Kremlin will likely seek to landlock Ukraine.


by HARM

*cover image: cropped area of the Wikipedia “Russian invasion of Ukraine” map (credits: Viewsridge)

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