Ukrainian troops dig in as confidence grows in ability to repel Russian forces

‘They have no chance to take Kyiv,’ says the commander of the capital’s defences

Artillery fire boomed a short distance away as Col Gen Oleksander Syrsky takes time to award medals to a dozen or so Ukrainian soldiers to reward them for their role in defending Kyiv.

Tuesday’s ceremony takes place more than 10km outside the capital in trenches freshly dug by Ukrainian troops as they resist Russian forces. Conducted while journalists tour the positions, it underlines Ukraine’s growing confidence in being able not just to resist Moscow’s stalled invasion but to move Vladimir Putin’s troops farther away from the capital.

“This is the general trend and our strategy, to maximally increase the outer circle of defences around Kyiv,” Syrsky, the commander of Kyiv’s defences, says.

Ukrainian troops guarding the new frontline position, near a pine forest, say they are wearing runners so that their army-issued boots do not make their feet too warm on an early spring day.


“We have dug into our new positions ... we will only advance,” says one of the soldiers, who gives his name as Serhiy.

The position, which protects access towards a key road into Kyiv, cannot be revealed for security reasons. But it is close enough to Irpin and Bucha – two bombed-out suburbs northwest of Kyiv, which Russian and Ukrainian forces have battled over for weeks – to feel the ground trembling.

Syrsky confirms reports that Irpin, the suburb on Kyiv’s northwest outskirts – which Russian troops had pinpointed as a gateway into the city from the north – “is 95 per cent under our control”.

“This was achieved in the last several days. There were fierce battles,” he says with a cool stare.

Top secret

Syrsky refuses to reveal what other towns have been recaptured or dug into by Ukrainian forces, pointing to the risk that they “can fall immediately under fire”. But he says government troops have pushed back Russian forces more than 30km east of Kyiv “in some directions”.

“They have no chance to take Kyiv,” says Syrsky, commander of the capital’s defences. “And it’s crucial that they failed to take Kyiv ... the brain of our country.”

Ukraine’s claims about the full extent of military activity around Kyiv cannot be independently verified.

But they came as Russia said on Tuesday it had decided to scale back its military activities around the capital and around the town of Chernihiv farther northeast, claiming the move was intended to "increase mutual trust" following a round of peace talks in Turkey.

In response a western official said: “We have seen the Russians begin to draw away from Kyiv. But we have little confidence at this stage that it marks some significant shift or a meaningful retreat.”

Volodymyr, commander of the unit visited by Syrsky, says 90 per cent of dozens of troops under his watch volunteered to fight in the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion. A mix of ages, they appear well equipped, dressed in full body armour.

“These are simple boys from across the country, from small towns and villages ... 30 per cent have battle experience from Donbas,” Volodymyr adds.

Serhiy, a battle-hardened veteran of the proxy separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region – which erupted in 2014 soon after Moscow annexed Crimea – says he rejoined the army days into Russia’s full-blown invasion just like “more than 70 per cent of my friends”.

“The only people left in our village are our wives and pensioners. Everyone is now defending our country,” he adds.

Air defences

Volodymyr says his unit has "lots of British and Spanish anti-tank rockets which are easy to use ... we are very thankful for them". But he says that to counter Russian air and cruise missile strikes, Ukraine needs better air defences, long-range missiles and jet fighters, "which our president, [Volodymyr Zelenskiy], keeps raising with the West – and rightfully so".

Volodymyr praises the role of Ukraine’s Soviet-era artillery systems in striking and halting Russian military advances. “Our strong artillery is capable of clearing their positions and soldiers are motivated to advance, but a ground soldier needs cover from the sky. Pushing the enemy out of our country will then become a simple clean-up procedure,” adds Volodymyr.

Syrsky says captured and killed Russian soldiers have maps with clear directions to Kyiv’s city centre government quarters, where Zelenskiy is based.

“But they did not calculate us blowing up the bridges around Irpin and our ability to mobilise our forces, including our artillery, which bogged them down into these fierce battles.”

He cautioned that the Russian forces still have a “strong grouping” in the region around Kyiv, including north of Irpin.

“But I think they re-evaluated their strategy with a focus now on the eastern Donbas region because their original plan to destroy our armed forces from all sides with quick air strikes and to swiftly capture Ukraine failed,” Syrsky says. “They were forced to adapt their plans, for sure.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022