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Russia says it will drastically reduce its troops near Kyiv. The Pentagon is doubtful

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After more than a month of bombing and shelling Ukraine, Russia says it will drastically reduce its military operations near the capital Kyiv. But there are doubts on the ground in Ukraine and also at the Pentagon about what that actually means.

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JOHN KIRBY: We have seen over the last 24 hours the repositioning of a small percentage of the troops that - and the battalion tactical groups that Russia had arrayed against Kyiv. If the Russians are serious about deescalating - because that's their claim here - then they should send them home. But they're not doing that, at least not yet.

CHANG: That is Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby speaking to reporters this afternoon. Western intelligence suggests that Russia will focus its war efforts on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Russian separatists have been battling Ukrainians for years there, and Russian troops recently joined the fight.

Joining us now to talk about these developments are NPR's Becky Sullivan. She has just returned from eastern Ukraine and joins us now from Kyiv. And we also have with us NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey to both of you.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hey. Good night.

CHANG: Hey, Becky. Let's start with you. Is what Russia claims about troop reductions actually happening? Like, how skeptical are Ukrainian officials and Pentagon officials?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. You know, Ukrainian officials are really echoing what we just heard from the Pentagon there. They say they've seen some withdrawals, but it's far from everything, essentially. Here's Colonel Oleksandr Motuzyanyk - he's a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense - speaking through an interpreter.

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OLEKSANDR MOTUZYANYK: (Through interpreter) At the same time, there is no mass-scale withdrawal of Russian troops from those areas. We don't see it. We just see that some units are withdrawn - some of them.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. So bottom line, he says it's just too early to say whether Russia has really stopped trying to take or besiege Kyiv or this other city in the northeast called Chernihiv. But overall, Ukraine says Russia's main goal right now has changed from the sort of bigger campaign that we saw in the early days to instead focus on the east, try to surround and defeat the Ukrainian forces that are operating in these regions called Luhansk and Donetsk that have been contested since 2014.

And then, you know, none of this has stopped Russia from using guided missiles to still destroy military targets, critical infrastructure all over the country, even in western Ukraine. Just another strike happened tonight into Dnipro, which is a major city close to eastern Ukraine. And so you hear Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy echo that skepticism, too. Late last night, he said, you know, Ukrainians aren't naive. Yes, the signals and negotiations are positive, but, quote, "those signals don't silence the explosions of Russian shells." And so basically they just don't see any basis to trust the Russians yet.

CHANG: Right. OK, Tom, let's bring you in here right now. What are your sources telling you about the way forward for both Russian forces and Ukrainian resistance?

BOWMAN: Well, the Russians are pulling back some of its troops from Kyiv, about 20%, some back into Belarus, according to the Pentagon and British intelligence. We're not getting any sense of the number, the exact number of pulling back. Of course, the Russians were intent on encircling Kyiv and pressuring a surrender. The Pentagon does not believe this is really a Russian withdrawal but instead may be just trying to reposition, Ailsa, refit its forces for future operations, of course, in the east and also in the south.

Now, of course, the reason they're pulling back and hunkering down in some areas outside Kyiv is because of the stiff resistance by Ukrainian forces making good use of shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles, also anti-aircraft missiles - thousands of them coming across the border from Poland and Romania. This strong Ukrainian defense has surprised the U.S., which estimated that Russians would take Kyiv - get this - in as little as two days. And today, the top U.S. officer in Europe, General Tod Wolters, said there could be an intelligence gap that caused the U.S. to overestimate Russia's capabilities.

CHANG: OK. Well, let's talk more about what's actually happening on the ground. You know, as Russia is promising sharp reductions in combat operations around Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv, Becky, can you tell us what is actually happening in those cities right now?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. I mean, well, those two cities are still being bombarded on the daily. In Chernihiv, which is, you know, like I said, to the northeast of Kyiv - it's near the border with Belarus - the mayor there said that they were bombarded more today. And then, you know, here in the Kyiv area in Irpin, which is this suburb northwest of Kyiv that was the closest that Russian troops had gotten to the city, really, Mayor Oleksandr Markushin said today that the city is 100% controlled by Ukrainian security forces at this point. They spent the last several days basically checking every building there to flush out any remaining Russian soldiers.

But he emphasized, you know, it's still dangerous in Irpin because it's still getting shelled by Russians every day. You know, they're just the next couple of suburbs up. Still, they haven't quite been pushed to that far out of the city yet, and so he told his residents not to return home for at least the next month because, you know, the shelling has destroyed utilities. It's not safe to get into the city yet to fix all that stuff. Dozens of Ukrainian soldiers have died over, you know, this past few weeks in this campaign to retake the city. Unexploded ordnance still there, so bottom line is it's still not safe.

CHANG: Yeah. And, Tom, what are your Pentagon sources saying about what we're hearing from Becky right now?

BOWMAN: Well, echoing what Becky is saying, the Pentagon thinks and others say that this could be now entering a more brutal phase, just slamming Kyiv and other cities with ever more missiles, rocket and artillery strikes. And they can do this, Ailsa, from the safety of either Belarus or even Russia using long-range missiles. The Russians are careful not to spend too much time even flying into Ukrainian airspace because of the air defenses, so they kind of scoot in far and then retreat back to a safe area. And officials caution that Russia still has a lot of firepower, so don't count them out. They've mounted similar kinds of attacks in the past in places like Chechnya and Syria, turning cities into rubble. And, of course, we can see that in places like Mariupol in southern Ukraine. You know, some see this as a Russian strategy to get a better deal at the negotiating table to basically make Ukrainians feel more pain.

CHANG: I want to ask you about something else, Tom. There are reports from the administration that Putin just isn't getting proper information about this fight. What are you hearing about that?

BOWMAN: Well, one source I spoke with said this is not new. Putin's not been getting accurate information now for weeks. The White House said today Putin is being, quote, "misinformed," and there's tension between Putin and his military. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said there are indications Putin is not being fully informed by his defense ministry, but he wouldn't get into specifics on intelligence matters.

CHANG: Well, Becky, can you just bring us up to date now? What's the status on the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine right now?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. So negotiators met for the first time in person in a few weeks. It had been all by video conference. And today - or yesterday and today, they met in Turkey to meet in person. And it seems yesterday that they'd gotten off to a positive start. And I'd say today it seems like it's been a little bit slower. On one hand, you've got Ukraine, which is sounding a bit more confident in what they're asking for. Their lead negotiators today said that Ukraine would likely be asking for reparations to help rebuild all this damage that has been caused by the Russians.

And then on the Russian side, there have actually been sort of some mixed messages coming. On one hand, you had a Kremlin spokesperson who said today that the Tuesday talks had not actually resulted in anything promising, was the word he used. But then on the other side, you had the chief negotiator for Russia, who had a very positive statement a little bit later about how Ukraine had outlined in writing its readiness to, quote, "fulfill a number of important conditions" to basically rebuild the relationship with Russia, as they put it.

And so what's next is that negotiators are going to go home from Turkey. They're going to take a few breaks - take a few days to take a break. They're going to come back with new official positions from Zelenskyy and his counterpart, Vladimir Putin. And it does seem more and more likely that Zelenskyy and Putin will finally have that face-to-face meeting that Zelenskyy has been calling for for the last few months, though there's still no details on when or where that might happen.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Becky Sullivan in Kyiv, Ukraine, and NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you to both of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SULLIVAN: Of course. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.