April 1, 2022

Russia withdraws from north of Kyiv

Institute for the Study of War

ISW assesses that the Kremlin has revised its campaign plan in Ukraine after the failure of its initial campaign to capture Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities and its subsequent failure to adjust its operations in late March. ISW previously assessed that the initial Russian campaign of the war—airborne and mechanized operations to seize Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, and other major Ukrainian cities to force a change of government in Ukraine—had failed as of March 19.[1] The Russian military continued to feed small collections of reinforcements into operations around Kyiv and across northeastern and southern Ukraine in an effort to keep its initial campaign plan alive throughout late March. We assess that the Russian military has now halted these failed efforts and is beginning a new phase of its campaign in Ukraine with new objectives. We are updating the structure of our campaign assessments to reflect the new structure and prioritization of Russian operations.

Russia’s main effort is now focused on eastern Ukraine, with two subordinate main efforts: capturing the port city of Mariupol and capturing the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. The Kremlin claims the entirety of these oblasts as the territory of its proxies in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR).[2] The Kremlin is increasingly redeploying troops from other axes of advance and channeling its remaining reinforcements from Russia into eastern Ukraine. Russian forces are unlikely to conduct active operations on other fronts in the coming weeks.

The Kremlin may intend to capture Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts before seeking to negotiate a Kremlin-favorable ceasefire and claim that Russia has achieved its war aims. The Kremlin’s initial false justification for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was to protect the DNR and LNR from Ukraine and enable them to seize their “claimed” territory. The Kremlin is attempting to gloss over the failure of Russia’s initial campaign for a domestic Russian audience. The Kremlin has in fact been forced to alter its operations after the failure of its initial campaign. Kremlin claims that Russian forces solely attacked northeastern Ukraine to degrade Ukrainian forces before achieving the “main goal” of capturing Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts – such as statements made by the Russian General Staff on March 25 – are false.[3]

Russian forces have three supporting efforts: Kharkiv and Izyum; Kyiv and northeastern Ukraine; and the southern axis, including Kherson.

  • Russian forces on the Kharkiv axis have abandoned efforts to take the city. Their new objectives are likely to 1) pin Ukrainian mechanized forces in place, and 2) drive southeast to link up with Russian forces in Luhansk Oblast. Russian forces captured Izyum (southeast of Kharkiv) on April 1 after attempting to do so since at least March 7.[4] Russian forces, including elements redeployed from the Sumy axis in the past week, will likely continue offensive operations in the coming days in an effort to cut off Ukrainian forces on the line of contact in Donbas.
  • Russian forces around Kyiv and in northeastern Ukraine seek to conduct a retrograde action—the orderly withdrawal of combat forces—for refit and further redeployment to other axes of advance. Russian forces remaining on the forward trace of Russian lines are a covering force intended to screen the retrograde of most of the combat power previously deployed around Kyiv. Ukrainian forces retook substantial territory both northwest and east of Kyiv in the past 24 hours. Ukrainian forces likely advanced faster than Russian forces anticipated, but Russian forces successfully withdrew much of the damaged combat power remaining around Kyiv into Belarus.
  • Russian forces on the southern axis—centered on Kherson—are unlikely to conduct offensive operations in the near future and will aim to defend Russian-occupied territory around Kherson against Ukrainian counterattacks. Russian forces will additionally likely prioritize securing southern Ukraine against increasingly frequent Ukrainian partisan actions. Russian forces are unlikely to resume offensive operations west toward Mykolayiv or north toward Zaporizhzhia and Kryvyi Rih in the near future.

Key Takeaways

  • We now assess that Russia has revised its campaign plan in Ukraine after the failure of operations to seize Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities throughout March.
  • The Kremlin’s claims that Russia’s main objective has been eastern Ukraine throughout the war are false and intended to obfuscate the failure of Russia’s initial campaign.
  • Russia’s main effort is now concentrated on eastern Ukraine. Russian forces seek to capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
  • Russian forces will likely take Mariupol in the coming days but continue to suffer heavy casualties.
  • Russian forces seek to fix in place the Ukrainian forces around Kharkiv.
  • Russian forces captured Izyum after three weeks of fighting on April 1 and will attempt to advance southeast to link up with Russian forces in Luhansk Oblast in the coming days.
  • Ukrainian forces recaptured large swathes of terrain both northwest and east of Kyiv in the past 24 hours, but Russia successfully withdrew elements of its damaged forces into Belarus.
  • The Kremlin will continue to funnel reinforcements (including both low-quality individual replacements from Russia and damaged units redeployed from northeastern Ukraine) into operations in eastern Ukraine, but these degraded forces are unlikely to enable Russia to conduct successful large-scale offensive operations.
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