BUCHA, Ukraine — Russian forces, determined to crush kyiv with tanks and artillery when the war began, retreated under fire across a broad front on Saturday, leaving behind dead soldiers and burnt-out vehicles, according to witnesses, Ukrainian officials, satellite images and military analysts.
The withdrawal suggested the possibility of a major turning point in the six-week war – the failure, at least for now, of Russia’s initial attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and the end of his hopes for the rapid subjugation of the nation.
“The initial Russian operation was a failure and one of its central objectives – the capture of kyiv – proved inaccessible to Russian forces,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, an institute of research in Arlington, Virginia. telephone interview on Saturday.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, attacks by Russian military forces have continued unabated, and the Pentagon has warned that formations near kyiv may reposition themselves for further assaults.
In the south, an aid convoy organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross which had stopped en route to bring relief to the besieged city of Mariupol set out again. The hope, repeatedly frustrated by Russian bombardment, was to bring emergency supplies to trapped residents and evacuate hundreds of those who endured weeks of bombardment that left food shortages and of water, in the middle of corpses abandoned in the streets.
As the Ukrainian army advances, it passes through an array of destruction in suburban towns north of kyiv, with dozens of tanks destroyed in the streets, extensive damage to buildings and the bodies of civilians still not recovered.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday it had captured Bucha, a key outlying town north of kyiv on the west bank of the Dnipro River, after Russian forces withdrew.
“They went from apartment to apartment to collect TVs and computers, loaded them onto their tanks and left,” pensioner Svetlana Semenova said of the Russian departure, which she described as chaotic. “They left in a hurry.”
A few dozen people who had mostly been living in basements for a month emerged to collect food – sacks of potatoes and bread – brought by Ukrainian soldiers.
Elena Shur, 43, an accountant for Ukraine’s national airline, said the Ukrainian army appeared in the city on Friday. The first sign of a Ukrainian presence was a civilian car carrying soldiers, which drove through the town waving a Ukrainian flag.
“We saw people on the street and soldiers,” Ms Shur said. “I cried.”
Journalists counted six bodies of civilians in the streets and sidewalks of Bucha. It was not known how they died, but the discarded wrapper of a Russian military ration lay next to a man who had been shot in the head.
The town was the site of a major Ukrainian ambush against a Russian armored column in the early days of the war, and a street was blocked by dozens of incinerated tanks and trucks.
Despite this setback, the Russians captured the town and held it for about a month, and executed half a dozen members of the Territorial Defense Force, the volunteer army that many Ukrainians had joined at the start of the war, said a resident, leaving the bodies in a heavily mined part of town.
The Ukrainians have advanced at least another 15 miles north of Bucha, where they now fly Ukrainian flags above former Russian checkpoints.
Conditions had clearly deteriorated for the Russian soldiers. Residents said they had confined themselves to abandoned apartments and looted shops for food, while suffering continual losses.
“According to our information, they are fleeing all areas around Kyiv,” said Sgt. Ihor Zaichuk, the commander of the 1st Company of the 2nd Azov Battalion of the Ukrainian Army, which fought at Bucha.
“They can say on their own TV channels, if they want, that they are the second most powerful army in the world,” he said. “But they aren’t anymore.”
But in a word of warning, he said the Russians might be back. “Only their commanders know if they will be re-equipped and return.”
On the east bank of the Dnipro, Ukrainian forces were advancing through villages tens of kilometers from the capital, according to an intelligence officer with the SBU, Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service, who declined to be identified for security reasons .
“The Russians are adjusting their goals to reality,” Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, said on Saturday. “I think they know they have problems, so I don’t think it’s a trick to say they’re focusing on Donbass, because really that’s all they can do. “
As for the withdrawal from the vicinity of kyiv, Mr. Freedman said, it shows that the Russians, having botched the first part of the war, “simply cannot hold all their current positions beyond the Donbass region”, in eastern Ukraine.
In the suburb of Irpin, which the Ukrainians had taken over before Bucha, demining operations were in full swing on Saturday. Some civilian bodies had been set up to kill rescue workers, Ukrainian officials said.
A group of military engineers, clad in heavy blue Kevlar armor, had tied a rope to a body. They pulled it, to test if the move would trigger any traps. At the end of the day, however, the body lay there, with engineers apparently unable to determine if it was safe to retrieve it.
In the village of Dmytrivka, west of the capital, there were signs of a dark and chaotic Russian retreat. On a forest road out of the village, nine tanks and armored vehicles lay destroyed and ravaged by fire at the scene of a tank battle three days earlier. The turrets and heavy guns of two tanks were thrown aside. The men’s burnt remains were visible inside their armored personnel carrier.
“They didn’t leave, they were destroyed,” said 58-year-old Valentina Yatsevich, a villager walking past the wreckage toward her home.
In Russia itself, the retreat has caused consternation among war cheerleaders, with state television previously raising hopes that the Russian military would capture kyiv.
Semyon Pegov, a popular pro-Kremlin war blogger embedded with Russian troops, posted a video on social messaging app Telegram on Saturday explaining that the move was “a withdrawal, not a robbery.”
Russia’s extended supply lines and the threat of further casualties as its troops tried to survive in field conditions against a much better-supplied and fortified enemy necessitated the retreat, he said.
It was an effort, mirrored by other pro-Kremlin media, to explain why Russia seemed to have sharply reduced its war aims in recent days, after suffering painful losses in the fighting for the outskirts of kyiv.
The Russian military first said on Wednesday that it was “gathering” forces in the kyiv region, saying it never planned to take the city in the first place and that the task of these soldiers had no was to tie up the Ukrainian forces there.
In fact, according to Russian officials, the main objective was to take more territory in the Donbass region.
But Russian hardliners have continued to call for an attack on kyiv and view the retreat as a disappointment. “I don’t know why this decision was taken,” Aleksandr Kots, war correspondent for Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote on Telegram about the withdrawal from Kyiv. “The war has only just begun. We will find out later who was right and who was at fault.
The Kremlin maintained its defiance as state television aired an interview with Dmitry S. Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, calling the United States the source of Europe’s ills. He said he was confident that European countries would renew their relations with Russia once they “sobered up a little from the American bourbon”.
Mr Kofman, the Russian military expert, said the Russian withdrawal from kyiv started quietly about a week ago and has now accelerated.
After the assault on the capital was halted some two weeks ago, he said, there were only two options left: to withdraw or leave the forces in the area to block Ukrainian units, preventing them from reinforce troops in the east or south of the country. It now appears that the Russians are retreating, he said.
Across Ukraine, he said, the Russian military lost about 2,000 pieces of equipment that were destroyed, captured or abandoned, including about 350 tanks.
In other developments on Saturday, Pope Francis, visiting the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, came closer to blaming Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for the war in Ukraine than he had before. In address to Maltese dignitaries and officials, pope blamed ‘potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests’ for casting ‘dark shadows of war’ from eastern Europe.
Francis declined to explicitly blame Mr. Putin or Russia as the aggressor for a variety of reasons, including the Vatican’s hopes of playing a role in an eventual peace deal, and as a precaution not to endanger Roman Catholics around the world. But on Saturday he clearly seemed to be talking about Mr Putin, who he said was “provoking and fomenting strife”.
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Bucha, Ukraine, and Neil MacFarquhar from New York. The report was provided by Anton Troyanovsky in Istanbul; Carlotta Gall in Dmytrivka, Ukraine; Megan Specia in Warsaw; Steven Erlanger in Brussels; and Jason Horowitz in Rome.