Russia claims that it is scaling down operations in northern Ukraine and around Kiev as a show of good faith following “meaningful” peace talks in Istanbul. Several possibilities could explain what Russia is actually doing since that official explanation seems rather unlikely. Moscow has continued to insist that its operations in Ukraine will continue until all of the planned objectives are completed.
Russia not storming Kiev for now
The announcement may simply be an outright lie, but it is difficult to see what Russia could gain militarily if that were the case.
Faking a withdrawal to entice Kiev into weakening its defenses would not be a particularly productive strategy, as Ukraine’s ability to move large numbers of troops between fronts is extremely limited, whereas Russia can redeploy its forces with much greater ease.
Even if the Ukrainians trusted Russia’s announcements (and they don’t) there could be no possibility of their significantly weakening defenses around the capital.
It has been suggested that Russia’s initial thrust towards Kiev was intended either to inspire an immediate capitulation or to tie up large numbers of Ukrainian troops while operations in the southeast progressed.
Both of these options could be true; the Kremlin likely thought that there was a good chance of Ukraine’s defenses immediately disintegrating with the arrival of Russian tanks on Kiev’s doorstep.
This didn’t happen, so the Russians presumably moved to their prepared backup plan for a drawn-out conflict. That has shifted the focus to the southeast while maintaining the threat against the capital.
Capital may still be in danger
If Russian troops are being redeployed from the north then they will likely take part in the encirclement of Ukraine’s Donbass army, which the Russians are determined to eliminate.
A subsequent assault on Kiev may or may not follow once Russia has freed up a large enough force. For both military and political reasons besieging the capital would be a difficult task.
Russia’s performance in the siege of Mariupol has been exceptional from a purely military perspective; taking a large urban center from a determined defending force typically requires many months and overwhelming numerical superiority.
Like drawing on lessons learned in Syria, Russia has effectively taken Mariupol in one month and has committed the bare minimum of troops against a large and ferocious force of Ukrainian defenders.
They might be able to replicate this success in Kiev, but the fight would be on a much larger scale and it would inevitably entail widespread destruction in a city that is seen by many, including Vladimir Putin, as a cradle of Russian civilization.
The Kremlin would have been very pleased to see the Ukrainian capital give up without a fight, but now that the Ukrainians have informed them that this won’t be happening it is very likely that they are seeking to win the war without being forced to storm Kiev.