Ukrainian troops are recapturing towns east of Kyiv and Russian forces who had been trying to seize the capital are falling back on overextended supply lines, Britain said on Friday, one of the strongest indications yet of a shift in momentum in the war.
The mayor of a suburb east of Kyiv said Ukrainian troops had recaptured a nearby village and thousands of civilians were now leaving the area, answering a call from the authorities to get out of the way of the counter-attack.
Russian troops instead have been bombarding, encircling and besieging Ukrainian cities, laying waste to residential areas and driving around a quarter of the 44 million population from their homes.
U.S. President Joe Biden was due to visit Poland for a first-hand look at the refugee crisis, which has seen 3.6 million Ukrainians flee abroad.
Battlelines near Kyiv have been frozen for weeks with Russian armoured columns threatening the capital from the northwest and the east. But in an intelligence update on Friday, Britain described a Ukrainian counter-offensive that had pushed Russians far back in the east.
Volodymyr Borysenko, mayor of Boryspol, an eastern suburb where Kyiv’s main airport is located, said 20,000 civilians had left the area, answering a call to clear out so Ukrainian troops could push the Russians further back.
Ukrainian forces had recaptured a village from Russian troops the previous day between Boryspol and Brovary, and would have pushed on further but had halted to avoid putting civilians in danger, he said.
On the other main front outside Kyiv, to the capital’s northwest, Ukrainian forces have been trying to encircle Russian troops in the adjacent suburbs of Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel, reduced to ruins by heavy fighting over the past few weeks.
In Bucha, 25 km (15 miles) northwest of Kyiv, a group of Ukrainian troops armed with anti-tank missiles were digging deep trenches to defend their frontline positions.
One of them, Andriy, told Reuters he had left his wife and children hiding in their house in an area that was later taken over by Russian forces.
“I told my wife to grab the children and to hide in the basement, and I went to the drafting station and joined my unit straight away. And the next day from the army base we moved to the frontline,” he said.
“My wife and children were under occupation for two weeks, but then they managed to escape through a humanitarian corridor.”
The Ukrainian military said its troops were repelling Russian forces trying to fight their way into Kyiv. Troops were also still holding on to the city of Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv, hindering a Russian advance in the direction of the capital.
Chernihiv’s governor said the city was effectively surrounded by Russian forces.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, which has sustained punishing bombardment since the war’s early days, police said four people had been killed by the shelling of a centre for distributing humanitarian aid. Russia denies targeting civilians.
Moscow calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to disarm its neighbour. Kyiv and its Western allies call it an unprovoked war of aggression and say Russia’s true aim was to overthrow the government of what President Vladimir Putin regards as an illegitimate state.
Unable to capture cities, Russia has resorted to pounding them with artillery and air strikes. The eastern port of Mariupol has been under siege since the war’s early days. Tens of thousands of people are still believed to be trapped inside with no access to food, medicine, power or heat.
In a part of the city now captured by the Russians, one woman waiting in line to receive food supplies told Reuters her diabetic husband had slipped into a coma and died. He was buried in a flowerbed.
“We are planning on leaving but it’s very difficult at the moment,” the woman, who gave her name as Alexandra, said. “I can’t leave my husband in a flowerbed … And then we have nowhere to go.”
After attending an emergency summit of NATO and the G7 in Brussels on Thursday, Biden is visiting Poland, which has taken in more than half of Ukraine’s refugees.
The West has ruled out intervening on the ground or answering Ukraine’s plea for a no-fly zone, but has supported Kyiv with hundreds of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that have blasted Russian armoured columns and prevented Moscow from taking control of the air.
A senior U.S. administration official said Washington and its allies were also working on providing anti-ship weapons to protect Ukraine’s coast. Ukrainian forces claimed on Thursday to have blown up a Russian landing ship in a Russian-occupied port.
U.S. officials told Reuters that Russia is suffering failure rates as high as 60% for some of its precision-guided missiles.
With stocks of precision-guided munitions running low, Russian forces were more likely to rely on unguided bombs and artillery, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said.