By Jamie Dettmer
A massive Russian armored column that’s been at a standstill for days north of Kyiv has been dispersed on three sides of the Ukrainian capital, prompting fears the deployment is a prelude to a redoubled offensive.
American defense officials say the Russian forces have moved 5 kilometers nearer to Kyiv, and artillery has taken up what are described as firing positions. The movement coincides with further military developments, including the shelling for the first time of the strategic eastern city of Dnipro, an industrial hub on the Dnieper River and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city.
The movements are accompanied by a series of airstrikes on air-defense facilities and military airfields in western Ukraine, about 130 kilometers south of Lviv, the city where more than 200,000 Ukrainian evacuees from across the rest of the country are sheltered.
Ukrainian officials have been bracing for days for a concerted Russian push on Kyiv after satellites identified the buildup last week of a Russian column that at one point stretched for 60 kilometers. They and Western military officials were surprised when the column stopped advancing and remained stationary, with opinion divided over whether the Russians were encountering fuel shortages and other logistical re-supply problems or were preparing a slow regrouping and dispersal.
Michael Kofman, an analyst with CNA, a Washington-based defense think tank, says the former scenario is likely, tweeting: “Looking at the Russian operation so far, they’re having tremendous problems with logistics and communications.” He added: “The whole effort seems shambolic.”
Whatever the reason for the sluggish dispersal of the column, the forces now have redeployed and are in much more menacing positions to mount an assault on the city. Satellite images from Maxar Technologies, an Earth-observation and space technology company, show the column of armored vehicles, tanks and artillery have been redeployed mainly in the forests and towns to the northwest of Kyiv, near Antonov military airport.
Russian armored vehicles also have been advancing nearer to Kyiv from the northwest, according to city Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who says, “every street, every building, every checkpoint has been fortified” in the capital in readiness for a Russian offensive. Klitschko said about 2 million people, half the population, have left the capital.
In its regular public update on military developments in Ukraine, Britain’s defense ministry said Russia is engaged in a general reset of its force posture with a redoubled offensive likely in the coming days. “This will probably include operations against the capital Kyiv,” it said. But the British defense ministry said Russian invasion forces still likely are being plagued by logistical problems and are having major issues overcoming stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance.
Poor Russian battlefield tactics also have been on display, according to independent military analysts. They point to the ambush Thursday by Ukrainian artillery in the town of Brovary, east of Kyiv, of a Russian tank convoy, forcing it to retreat after two tanks were taken and its commander was killed. The ambush was captured on video, with some analysts questioning why the tanks proceeded in line in close formation and had not been dispersed more widely.
Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Friday that Russian forces conducted long-range missile attacks on two military airfields in the western Ukrainian cities of Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk. Ukrainian military officials confirmed the strikes but denied Russian claims the air-defense facilities at both airfields had been destroyed. Local authorities said two Ukrainian servicemen were killed and six people were wounded at the Lutsk military airfield.
While the redeployment around Kyiv continued Friday at pace, Russian leader Vladimir Putin struck some surprisingly positive notes about possible talks, saying in Moscow there have been some “certain positive shifts” and that those negotiations with Ukraine were continuing on a daily basis. His remarks came despite any lack of progress in talks Thursday between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers in Turkey.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also surprised reporters in Moscow by mentioning the chance of a meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, although translations differed on whether he meant a meeting isn’t being excluded or is possible.