By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Russia has started to reposition under 20% of the forces arrayed around Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, but cautioned Russia was expected to refit and resupply them for redeployment into Ukraine, and not bring the forces home.
Russian forces bombarded the outskirts of the capital Kyiv and the besieged city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine on Wednesday, a day after Russia said it would scale down military operations in both cities in what the West dismissed as a ploy to regroup by invaders suffering heavy losses.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said some of the Russian forces may have already moved into Belarus, as opposed to their home garrisons.
“They are leaving Kyiv and heading more towards the north, away from the city,” Kirby told a news conference.
Troops leaving the area included some of those around Chernihiv along with those fighting near the town of Sumy, Kirby said.
He added that Kyiv was still being attacked by air and ground strikes.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said some Russian troops were also leaving from near the Chernobyl power station. It was not clear if the troops leaving were departing the exclusion zone around the plant or the surrounding towns.
Military analysts say Russia has reframed its war goals in Ukraine in a way that may make it easier for Moscow to claim a face-saving victory despite a woeful campaign in which his army has suffered humiliating setbacks.
Kirby added that Russian contractor Wagner Group had deployed about 1,000 personnel into Ukraine’s Donbas region, which Moscow has declared a priority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said in the past that Wagner and other private groups neither represent the Russian state nor are paid by it, though he says they have a right to operate provided they do not break Russian law.
The European Union imposed sanctions on Wagner last year, accusing it of fuelling violence, looting natural resources and destabilizing countries around the world.
Earlier on Wednesday, the top U.S. military commander in Europe told Congress that President Joe Biden’s administration made a policy decision to keep U.S. warships out of the Black Sea prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The disclosure underscored the efforts that Biden took ahead of Russia’s invasion to avoid giving Moscow any U.S.-related pretext for attacking Ukraine, something that Republican critics has seized upon in recent days as they press for a stronger U.S. response.
Kirby said that the decision had been made because it was seen as a prudent move “to make it very clear to everybody that the United States was not interested in in forcing a conflict by some posture decision that we were making.”
“So it was the prudent thing to do at the time, and I don’t have anything to announce with respect to if and when U.S. ships will go back into the Black Sea,” he said.
Ukraine accused Russia on Wednesday of planting mines in the Black Sea and said some of those munitions had to be defused off Turkey and Romania as risks to merchant shipping in the region grow.
The Black Sea is a major shipping route for grain, oil and oil products. Its waters are shared by Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Turkey as well as Ukraine and Russia.
(Reporting by Idree Ali and Phil StewartEditing by Alistair Bell)