Russia has withdrawn two-thirds of forces near Kyiv: US official

A soldier takes a photograph of his comrade as he poses beside a destroyed Russian tank in Bucha, on April 2, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Russia has repositioned about two thirds of its forces from around Kyiv, with many consolidating in Belarus where they are expected to be refit, resupplied and redeployed elsewhere in Ukraine, a senior US defense official said on Monday (April 4).

Over the weekend, Ukraine said its forces had seized back all areas around Kyiv, claiming complete control of the capital region for the first time since Russia launched the invasion.

The US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters the United States estimated that prior to the pullback, there had been just under 20 battalion tactical groups focused on Kyiv. That was less than a sixth of the battalion tactical groups that the Kremlin deployed for the invasion.

"We still assess that the vast, vast majority of the more than 125 battalion tactical groups that the Russians invested in this invasion are still in Ukraine," the official said.

The official estimated that Russian forces that had withdrawn from around Kyiv would likely be redirected towards eastern Ukraine, but that was still not confirmed.

"What we continue to believe is that they're going to be refit, resupplied, perhaps maybe even reinforced with additional manpower and then sent back into Ukraine to continue fighting elsewhere," the official said.

As Russian troops regrouped for battles in east Ukraine, towns surrounding Kyiv bore scars of five weeks of fighting.

The discovery of a mass grave and tied bodies shot at close range in Bucha, outside Kyiv, a town taken back from Russian troops, looked set to galvanise the United States and Europe into additional sanctions against Moscow.

The mayor in Bucha, a liberated town 37 km northwest of the capital, said that 300 residents had been killed by Russian forces while Chechen fighters controlled the area.

The Kremlin has denied accusations related to the murder of civilians in the town.

The US military was not in a position to independently confirm Ukrainian accounts of atrocities by Russian forces against civilians in Bucha, but has not reason to dispute the accounts either, the senior US defense said.

"We're seeing the same imagery that you are. We have no reason whatsoever to refute the Ukrainian claims about these atrocities - clearly, deeply, deeply troubling," the official added.

The defense official did not challenge Russia's claims over the weekend that it carried out an airstrike on an oil depot in Odessa. But the reasoning for the strike was not entirely clear, the official said, as speculation persists about a possible amphibious assault on the city.

"It could be that they are simply doing that (strike) to try to pin down Ukrainian forces there, make them think that there's something big coming in Odessa and so that they stay and try to protect the city," the official said.

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