IRPIN, Ukraine (NYTIMES) - Creeping forward block by block, Ukrainian soldiers in a reconnaissance unit on Tuesday (March 29) found signs of a retreating Russian army everywhere: a charred armoured vehicle, abandoned body armour decorated with an orange and black St. George ribbon, a Russian military symbol, and the traditional blue-and-white striped underwear issued to Russian soldiers, cast aside in a forest.
What they did not encounter was the Russian army in any organised state. After a month of savage street fighting, one of the most pivotal battles in the war ended this week - at least for now - with an improbable victory in Irpin for Ukraine's outgunned and outnumbered military.
By Tuesday, Ukrainian forces had quashed any significant Russian resistance in this strategic outlying town near Kyiv, the capital.
Pockets of Russian soldiers remained, posing risks. A firefight erupted in the afternoon when Ukrainian soldiers destroyed a lone Russian armoured personnel carrier in an otherwise empty neighbourhood, according to a commander.
But Ukraine's military had essentially recaptured Irpin, a town both strategically and symbolically important as the closest the Russian army had gotten to Kyiv, just 3 miles away.
Its success in driving the Russians away may have factored into the peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul on Tuesday, when the two sides achieved what appeared to be their most substantive progress to date.
Moscow promised to reduce "by multiples" the intensity of its military activity around Kyiv, an area that includes Irpin, in effect acknowledging that its advance towards the capital had stalled and was at least in some places being pushed back.
With superior numbers and weaponry, Russia could always decide to mount another assault on Irpin. And Ukrainian security experts expressed scepticism about Russia's pledge to pull back.
"They will not abandon plans to take the capital," said Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former secretary of Ukraine's Security and Defense Council.
Still, some people saw the recapture of Irpin as a moral victory, even if street fighting continues in the town and the military gains may be tentative.
Kyiv was always the biggest prize of all for the Russian military, as the seat of government and a city ingrained in both Russian and Ukrainian identity. But the Ukrainian military's performance in the vicious street fighting in an arc of outlying towns and villages became emblematic of the challenges Russian forces would face as they attempted to encircle or capture the capital.
"Today we have good news," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a videotaped address on Monday. "Our defenders are advancing in the Kyiv region, regaining control over Ukrainian territory."
Mr Zelensky said the town of Irpin was "liberated." He added, "Well done. I am grateful to everyone who worked for this result." He said some fighting continued.
Here, as elsewhere in the fighting around Kyiv, the Ukrainian military achieved its battlefield success by deploying small, fast-moving units largely on foot that staged ambushes or defended sites with the benefit of local knowledge. Many such units are based in central Kyiv, commuting to the war zone by car.
The reconnaissance unit that patrolled Irpin on Tuesday, a part of Ukraine's military intelligence agency, uses as its base a shuttered bar in Kyiv, now cluttered with sleeping bags, boxes of ammunition and hand grenades.
At dawn on a clear, cold morning Tuesday, the soldiers strapped on body armor and pouches of ammunition, with a crackling noise of Velcro, then jumped in place to ensure their gear was well attached. The bar's stereo played Ukrainian folk songs.
The front in Irpin was a quick drive away. The soldiers filtered into the town in small groups of three or four, to avoid drawing Russian artillery, then regrouped in a maze of back streets.
"We are defending our land," said a commander of one of the two squads, consisting of eight men each. He asked to be identified only by his first name, Bohdan. While the Russian military has pulled back in force, he said, Ukrainian soldiers still must search house to house in the city to flush out pockets of remaining enemy soldiers.
"We move into a neighbourhood and if there is contact, we fire or call in artillery," he said of these operations. "If there is no contact, well, then it is clear this territory is again ours." The mayor of Irpin, a once quiet and leafy suburb with a prewar population of about 70,000, said that all but about 4,000 civilians had fled. The patrol encountered only one elderly man, who waved from behind a window of a house.
In a town park, the Ukrainian patrol found a destroyed Russian armoured personnel carrier, burned in places to a rich orange colour. Beside the vehicle were the traditional blue-and-white undershirts used by Russian soldiers, called telnyashkas. Elsewhere, they found a cardboard box labeled Russian army food. "Individual Food Ration," the label said. "Not for Sale."
The soldiers took selfies beside the incinerated armoured personnel carrier. Some sank to the pine duff to rest, gazing at the spectacle of the destroyed vehicle where Russian soldiers had died. The bodies had been retrieved earlier, though by whom was unclear.
"I don't see the Russians as enemies," said a Ukrainian soldier who offered only his first name, Hennady, out of concern for his safety. "They are just inert people, doing things without knowing what they are doing."
The day had been quiet but suddenly shifted with a cacophony of heavy machine-gun fire and explosions from rocket-propelled grenades as the squad led by Bohdan, which had remained behind, encountered a Russian armored personnel carrier. Why it remained in this place, otherwise empty of Russian soldiers, was unclear. Later, a commander said the vehicle was destroyed.
Serhiy, one of the soldiers, offered a more skeptical assessment of Ukrainian gains in Irpin. While perhaps the largest occupied town was recaptured, he said, Ukraine's control was uncertain. "We have a tentative front line" now outside Irpin, he said, "but the key word is tentative." "Their goal is Kyiv," he added. "They will come back. They will need to cover this ground again."