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Ukrainian forces have liberated Kyiv region from Russia

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The battle for Kyiv is Ukraine's biggest victory yet in its war with Russia. Ukrainian officials say the region is liberated. And the Pentagon says Russia has withdrawn two-thirds of its military force from the region around the city. The fight for the capital was intense, leaving suburbs destroyed. Images of bodies lining the streets dressed in civilian clothes have sparked concerns about possible Russian war crimes. NPR's Becky Sullivan spoke about the battle with soldiers who fought for Ukraine and has this report from Kyiv.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Irpin, Bucha, Hostomel - the trio of quiet, leafy Kyiv suburbs whose homes, churches and parks turned into battlefields after the Russian invasion began on February 24, and the columns of tanks and soldiers moved swiftly from Belarus down the roads toward Kyiv. In Irpin, the Russian advance met the Ukrainian defense, who held firm, setting up a battle that would last all of March.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Without curse words, you can't describe it.

SULLIVAN: This Ukrainian special operations soldier worked to flush the Russians out of Irpin. He couldn't give me his name for security reasons.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) We were going street after street. There were battles for every house.

SULLIVAN: For weeks, he said, the shells went back and forth as the front lines hardly budged.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Our artillery was hitting them precisely where there was a concentration of their troops because their own officers and people have their homes there. But half of Irpin is gone because they just bombed everything with a bunch of ammunition. That's the difference.

SULLIVAN: Another soldier I spoke to was an American, a former Marine who came here to fight as part of a Ukrainian unit. He also couldn't give me his name. In another suburb nearby, he got firsthand experience of Russia's go-to military tactic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Lots of mortars, artillery, missiles. We even got bombed.

SULLIVAN: Key to Ukraine's success in Kyiv and elsewhere has been their ability to take out Russian tanks. The U.S. has supplied thousands of shoulder-mounted Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. And the American soldier said his unit's role was to sneak through the front lines to harass the Russians and target their tanks. Plus, he said, conventional military wisdom says attackers need two or three times as many soldiers as a defending force. But the two sides' numbers were closer than that, he said. And both soldiers agreed that the Russians did not appear to be well-trained. Caught in the middle of all of this were the suburbs. The former Marine said they looked like ghost towns. Soldiers from both sides used people's homes to take cover, he said, homes that had been abandoned as civilians fled the sudden invasion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Just walking in where obviously they kind of just took everything they could and then got out. So we saw - I mean, one house I went into, went upstairs and their whole wardrobe was up there. It could have been any house in America.

SULLIVAN: Eventually, the soldiers told me, the Ukrainians were able to encircle the Russian forces to push them up and out of the region. Russia has said it was withdrawing forces as a show of good faith in the ongoing negotiations process. But analysts say the reality is different. Taking control of Kyiv was Russia's original objective. But now they've assessed they're not able to do that, according to Sam Cranny-Evans, a military scientist at the Royal United Services Institute, which is a research group based in London.

SAM CRANNY-EVANS: I suppose there are two ways of looking at this situation, and one of them is that the Russians have lost the battle. And the other is that the Ukrainians have won it. And I think it's probably a little bit of both.

SULLIVAN: On one hand, he says, tactical mistakes and a lack of preparation on Russia's part hindered their chances. They were too dependent on roads, which left their columns of tanks susceptible to attack and delay. And then once they did arrive in the suburbs, the Russians struggled to establish a solid front, he said. Instead, their forces moved forward in parallel lines, which left space in between for Ukrainian units to punch through and encircle them. Though this is a significant win for Ukraine, Cranny-Evans warns we're still early in this war. It could drag on for several more months, he says, like the campaign in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000.

CRANNY-EVANS: So they do have the capacity to withstand dreadful losses and continue fighting, that is in their history as a military. So I think we should just bear in mind Russia's past and Russia's attitudes towards warfare and loss.

SULLIVAN: Now both Russia and Ukraine are shifting forces to the east. Cranny-Evans says Russia is now focused on seizing the Donbas, the region in eastern Ukraine that's been contested since 2014. Ukraine is determined to keep it. And both sides say they are prepared for a longer and maybe even more intense fight to come. Becky Sullivan, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.