(CN) — Hopes for a Ukrainian victory are growing as the war entered its sixth week on Friday and some Russian troops around Kyiv withdrew under attack from Ukrainian soldiers.
In a move that signals Ukraine is emboldened, two low-flying Ukrainian helicopters apparently sped under the cover of darkness to the Russian city of Belgorod and bombed a fuel depot. The helicopters reportedly had to fly close to the ground to avoid detection by anti-aircraft systems.
Kyiv would not confirm or deny the attack, but Moscow said it was carried out by Ukraine and that the strike inside Russia hurt ceasefire efforts. There have been several reports of Ukrainian shelling inside Russian border areas in recent days. But the raid seemingly was the first attack by a manned aircraft on Russia since the Korean War.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have retaken several towns and villages in the outskirts of Kyiv and reportedly harassed Russian forces as they withdrew from around the capital. Still, Russia is holding onto several key positions around Kyiv and fighting was reportedly intense on Friday.
Ukrainian forces based in and around Mykolaiv also have been mounting counterattacks in Kherson, a city and region in southern Ukraine that fell to Russia early in the invasion. Ukraine has resisted attempts by Russia to seize Mykolaiv, a city between Kherson and the key Black Sea port city of Odessa. Russia struck Mykolaiv’s administrative building on Tuesday and the death toll there has risen to 28, according to Ukraine's Interfax news agency.
After 37 days of war, some Western military experts believe that Russia’s military invasion has been a failure and that Ukraine’s unexpected chances of repelling the invaders are growing. Still, it remains far from clear who has the upper hand and how the war will end. Russia maintains a far larger and better equipped military, though Ukraine’s army has grown in recent years into Europe’s second largest after Russia and it has been armed and trained by the United States and NATO.
“Ukraine has not only held Kyiv and Mykolaiv, but has counterattacked from both directions,” commented Rob Lee, a Russian military expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
Ceasefire talks resumed on Friday with diplomats speaking by video. Kyiv said it is waiting for Moscow to submit a formal reply to proposals it made this week in talks in Istanbul. Kyiv said it would consider asking Ukrainians in a referendum whether the country should become neutral and not join NATO.
The prospects for a ceasefire and peace deal any time soon remain remote as both sides seek victory on the battlefield.
Russia portrayed its movement of troops from around Kyiv, Chernihiv, which lies north of the capital, and Sumy, a northern city east of Kyiv, as part of a recalibration to focus its firepower on eastern Ukraine, where intense fighting is taking place. Moscow claimed that it had achieved an initial goal of knocking out Ukraine’s military infrastructure and that it was time to focus on seizing the Donbas region, which makes up the eastern parts of Ukraine.
In its latest assessment, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, said it doubted Russia’s move to shift troops toward the battle in Donbas would be effective.
The think tank said such efforts “to redeploy damaged units from the Kyiv and Sumy axes to eastern Ukraine are unlikely to enable Russian forces to conduct major gains.”
The institute said these Russian units are being resupplied and repaired but that they are “likely heavily damaged and demoralized.”
“Russia invaded Ukraine with 75% of its BTGs [battalion tactical groups] as well as Rosgvardia [national guard] and conscripts,” Lee commented on Twitter. “The Russian military stretched itself to mass this force, which meant it didn’t have much of a reserve if things went poorly.”