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Ukraine tells Russia 'die or surrender' as its Kyiv counterattack pushes back invaders

Ukrainian officials claimed to have gained ground around their capital city, but military experts and U.S. officials have warned of a long road ahead.
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KYIV, Ukraine — As Russian missile strikes continued to cause fires, terrorize residents and turn buildings to rubble here Wednesday, Ukrainian forces seemingly managed to push back Vladimir Putin's invading army from the capital's outer edges.

Inside a city administration building, two Ukrainian generals helping to lead the counterattack pored over a map detailing the movement of their country's forces and the areas they had apparently recaptured. This is where officials from the city’s police, military and local government are meeting, planning and monitoring the war.

Gen. Andrea Kryshenko and Gen. Serhii Knyazev said Wednesday that Ukraine regained significant territory around Kyiv in the past two days — a potential sign that the war, which enters the second month, could undergo a shift as Russian forces struggle to advance on the country's capital.

A U.S. defense official corroborated the claim, saying that the Russian military had pushed from the east to as close as 12 miles from Kyiv. After the counteroffensive, those forces had retreated to about 34 miles away from the city, the official added.

But some military experts have cautioned that it's hard to tell whether the gains Ukraine claims to have made in the past 48 hours are real. Even if they are, they say, the coming days will be incredibly important as Putin could deploy even more lethal weapons in his bid to break Kyiv's defenses and as Ukraine struggles to hold the southern port city of Mariupol.

Knyazev, the former head of Ukraine’s National Police and now a military and police adviser, said that the city's defenders have used local waterways, ridges and geographic features to help push back the Russian forces.

"The head commander of Ukrainian ground forces manages the Kyiv defenses," he said, "and the tactical moves that they deployed allowed us to take back the settlements that are important for further counteroffensive actions."

It marks a notable, though fragile, potential breakthrough around which Ukrainians are rallying.

Image: Kyiv
A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard near a burning warehouse hit by a Russian shell in the suburbs of Kyiv on March 24, 2022.Fadel Senna / AFP - Getty Images

The country's defense ministry said Tuesday that it had taken back Makariv, a town roughly 40 miles west of Kyiv on a key highway. And the Bucha City Council said in a Facebook post that the Ukrainian military had surrounded its town, as well as the Kyiv suburbs of Irpin and Hostomel, cutting Russian forces off from supplies and support.

With few reporters on the front lines, it is difficult to verify these accounts. But government officials say recent days have brought the biggest counteroffensive since the start of the invasion — and they intend to continue the push.

Other counteroffensives had also appeared effective.

The Russian drive through Kyiv’s suburbs in the northwest was stymied, the defense official said, and its army there had started “digging in” and taking up defensive positions. An assault further north of Kyiv, in Chernihiv, had stalled, and the Russian forces had been unable to advance near Mykolaiv in the south.

"We need to liberate all of our territories, so of course we will push them back and destroy them," said Kryshenko, the former Kyiv chief of police who now serves as the deputy head of the Kyiv City Military Administration.

Current and former Ukrainian defense officials said that, at least for the moment, their efforts had helped solve multiple problems for the country's military.

Image: A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard at Independence Square
A Ukrainian service member stands guard Wednesday at Independence Square in Kyiv. Sergei Supinsky / AFP - Getty Images

Leonid Polyakov, Ukraine’s former vice minister of defense, explained over the phone from Kyiv that recapturing Marakiv would make it easier to deliver military aid and humanitarian supplies that flowed from the border to the country's capital, which has become a stronghold.

It would also ease pressure on the defenders of Kyiv in the northwest who have faced a difficult Russian offensive, he said, allowing them to address casualties and help trapped civilians. 

If Ukraine had indeed surrounded Russian forces, Polyakov said, noting the claims needed further verification, that would allow its military to cut the attackers off from supply lines, discourage Belarus from joining Putin’s fight and would take a huge toll on the invaders’ morale.

“They will have just two options, either die or surrender,” Polyakov said of Russian forces who may be surrounded in areas near Kyiv. “We will continue killing them until they surrender.”

The reported recapture of Makariv is significant, said Steven Horrell, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and a former U.S. naval intelligence officer.

"It is Ukraine truly counterattacking, taking back territory and, to a certain extent, pushing back what Russia had advanced in the very early stages of the war," he said.

"But it's only one of the several major battlefields across Ukraine," Horrell added.

A senior NATO official said this week that after nearly a month of fighting, the war in Ukraine was entering a stalemate, with Moscow making only marginal gains as its troops faced significant logistical challenges, including fuel and food shortages.

It is also unclear how strong Putin's army remains. A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Tuesday that Putin’s combat power is dropping, and NATO estimates that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops have died so far — many multiples more than the number of Americans who died over 20 years in Afghanistan.

"The Russians have not achieved any of the strategic objectives that they set out to, and they certainly haven’t achieved the objectives that they have easily or without loss," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said earlier this week.

Image: Aftermath of missile strike in Kyiv's Podilskyi district
A soldier is pictured outside a shopping mall ruined as a result of a missile strike carried out by the Russian troops in the Podilskyi district of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 22, 2022.Yuliia Ovsiannikova / Future Publishing via Getty Images

He would not confirm specific reports from Ukraine that it had recaptured suburbs of Kyiv.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while reports of Ukraine's counterattacks in the Kyiv suburbs were encouraging, it was important not to read too much into the events of the past 24 hours.

"The front lines are likely very fluid," he said. "We will have to see whether they can expand on this and whether the Russians have to pull back from some of their other positions."

There is also concern that there is not a complete picture of military movements within Ukraine, despite the images and information on social media that appear to come from the region.

Keir Giles, the research director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre in London, said that there's a growing paradox in Ukraine as the world receives a flood of data and video that is difficult to verify.

"What we don't have from all of these videos of burning Russian tanks is an overall holistic appreciation of what the actual situation is, because there's so little that we see that gives us an ability to judge the Ukrainian capacity for continuing to resist," he said. "And that is going to be the defining factor when it comes to peace negotiations, because only the Ukrainians will know at what point they are either facing collapse or, conversely, actually getting stronger."

Some experts and U.S. officials worry that the more difficulty Putin encounters in Ukraine, the more likely he is to turn to extreme measures, such as biological and chemical weapons.

Senators, such as Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also raised concerns that Putin could use a small-scale nuclear weapon in a targeted manner.

The rationale is that Putin could see it as a means to turn the tide, as the Russian military gets bogged down in a costly, drawn-out battle against Ukrainian fighters.

"The Russians seem to have stalemated," Cancian said. "And as a result, I think they're moving into a third phase of the war, which is a bombardment phase."

Also complicating Ukraine's military success around Kyiv is the possibility that Russia could soon take over the southern city of Mariupol. That could free up Russian forces to move to operations in other parts of country, threatening Ukraine's offensive and creating a connected, logistically supported Russian front in the southeast.

Experts previously told NBC News that Russian troops who have been stuck fighting in Mariupol could either push west to Odesa or north in an effort to threaten the rear of Ukrainian forces operating in the Donbas region if they successfully seize the city.

“What we’re seeing now are indications that the Russians are trying to prioritize that part of eastern Ukraine,” the defense official said.

Polyakov argued that the Ukrainians could maintain the fight in Mariupol for weeks and were more interested in securing and protecting the lives of civilians.

"They have big losses and have concentrated a lot of different sorts of troops there: Spetsnaz [Russian special forces], seasoned fighters from Donbas and others," he said. "But we still have enough troops capable of damaging them."

Richard Engel reported from Kyiv. Lauren Egan and Phil McCausland reported from London.