IRPIN, Ukraine — Creeping forward block by block, Ukrainian soldiers in a reconnaissance unit on Tuesday found signs of a retreating Russian army everywhere: a charred armored vehicle, abandoned body armor decorated with an orange and black St. George ribbon, a Russian military symbol, and the traditional blue-and-white striped underwear issued to Russian soldiers, cast aside in a forest.
What they did not encounter was the Russian army in any organized state. After a month of savage street fighting, one of the most pivotal battles in the war so far ended this week — at least for now — with an improbable victory in Irpin for Ukraine’s outgunned and outnumbered military. By Tuesday, Ukrainian forces had quashed any significant Russian resistance in this strategic outlying town near Kyiv, the capital.
Pockets of Russian soldiers remained, posing risks. A firefight erupted in the afternoon when Ukrainian soldiers destroyed a lone Russian armored personnel carrier in an otherwise empty neighborhood, according to a commander.
But Ukraine’s military had essentially recaptured Irpin, a town both strategically and symbolically important as the closest the Russian army had gotten to Kyiv, just three miles away. Its success in driving the Russians away may have factored into the peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul on Tuesday, when the two sides achieved what appeared to be their most substantive progress to date.
Moscow promised to reduce “by multiples” the intensity of its military activity around Kyiv, an area that includes Irpin, in effect acknowledging that its advance toward the capital had stalled and was at least in some places being pushed back.
With superior numbers and weaponry, Russia could always decide to mount another assault on Irpin. And Ukrainian security experts expressed skepticism about Russia’s pledge to pull back. “They will not abandon plans to take the capital,” Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said in an interview.
Still, some people saw the recapture of Irpin as morally uplifting, even if street fighting continues in the town and the military gains may be tentative.
Kyiv was always the biggest prize of all for the Russian military, as the seat of government and a city ingrained in both Russian and Ukrainian identity. But the Ukrainian military’s performance in the vicious street fighting in an arc of outlying towns and villages became emblematic of the challenges Russian forces would face as they attempted to encircle or capture the capital.
“Today we have good news,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a videotaped address on Monday. “Our defenders are advancing in the Kyiv region, regaining control over Ukrainian territory.”
Mr. Zelensky said that the town of Irpin was now “liberated.” He added, “Well done. I am grateful to everyone who worked for this result.” He said some fighting continued.
In its attempt to capture the capital, the Russian military was bedeviled by logistical setbacks as it advanced in lumbering tank columns into the urban environment of Kyiv’s suburbs, where armored vehicles are vulnerable to ambushes. Over a month of fighting, with Ukraine’s military putting up fierce resistance, the losses piled up.
Western and Ukrainian officials have been saying for weeks that the Russians have taken heavy casualties in these suburban battles. That was on display on Tuesday, as the Ukrainian reconnaissance unit pushed into a scene of destruction in a neighborhood of one-story homes in Irpin.
The vicious give-and-take of the fighting for nearly a month left a sprawl of burned or blown-up buildings, tank tracks in the roads and bullet cartridges scattered all about. Wires sagged from the utility poles.
The area had been a base for Russian special operations soldiers, or Spetsnaz, and ethnic Chechens fighting on Russia’s side, according to Western military analysts and Ukrainian soldiers.
Here, as elsewhere in the fighting around Kyiv, the Ukrainian military achieved its battlefield success by deploying small, fast-moving units largely on foot that staged ambushes or defended sites with the benefit of local knowledge. Many such units are based in central Kyiv, commuting to the war zone by car.
The reconnaissance unit that patrolled Irpin on Tuesday, a part of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, uses as its base a shuttered bar in Kyiv, now cluttered with sleeping bags, boxes of ammunition and hand grenades.
At dawn on a clear, cold morning on Tuesday, the soldiers strapped on body armor and pouches of ammunition, with a crackling noise of Velcro, then jumped in place to ensure their gear was well attached. The bar’s stereo played Ukrainian folk songs.
The front in Irpin was a quick drive away. The soldiers filtered into the town in small groups of three or four, to avoid drawing Russian artillery, then regrouped in a maze of back streets.
“We are defending our land,” said a commander of one of the two squads, consisting of eight men each. He asked to be identified only by his first name, Bohdan. While the Russian military has pulled back in force, he said, Ukrainian soldiers still must search house to house in the city to flush out pockets of remaining enemy soldiers.
“We move into a neighborhood and if there is contact, we fire or call in artillery,” he said of these operations. “If there is no contact, well, then it is clear this territory is again ours.”
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Ongoing peace talks. During peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul, Russia promised it would “reduce military activity” near Kyiv, and Ukraine said it was ready to declare itself permanently neutral. Even so, weeks of further negotiation may be needed to reach an agreement, and Russia appears determined to capture more territory in eastern Ukraine.
The mayor of Irpin, a once quiet and leafy suburb with a prewar population of about 70,000, said that all but about 4,000 civilians had fled. The patrol encountered only one elderly man, who waved from behind a window of a house.
Two hours into their rounds, the Ukrainians were panting and sweating, dashing between walls and into backyards, climbing in and out of broken windows. “They lived in these houses and they were firing on Kyiv from this neighborhood,” Bohdan said of the Russians.
The buzz of their drone was nearly always overhead, scouting the street in front of them.
Through most of the day, there were no sounds of small-arms fire anywhere in town. Such fire would indicate close engagements between the two armies. The soldiers passed a Russian military identification document, fluttering in the wind on the lawn of a house, but did not touch it to check the name, fearing a booby trap.
Irpin has loomed large symbolically in the war not just because of its adjacency to the capital. In normal times, it was a town that conveyed nothing so much as the ordinariness and tranquillity of a middle-class suburban life in Kyiv, with parks for bike riding and tree-lined streets. But the fighting grew fiercer as Russia moved to encircle the capital, and the death of a mother and her two children fleeing the city early in the conflict — struck by a mortar as they crossed a bridge — came to represent the shattered sense of security in once-safe communities.
In a town park, the Ukrainian patrol found a destroyed Russian armored personnel carrier, burned in places to a rich orange color. Beside the vehicle were the traditional blue-and-white undershirts used by Russian soldiers, called telnyashkas. Elsewhere, they found a cardboard box labeled Russian army food. “Individual Food Ration,” the label said. “Not for Sale.”
The soldiers took selfies beside the incinerated armored personnel carrier. Some sank to the pine duff to rest, gazing at the spectacle of the destroyed vehicle where Russian soldiers had died. The bodies had been retrieved earlier, though by whom was unclear.
“I don’t see the Russians as enemies,” said a Ukrainian soldier who offered only his first name, Hennady, out of concern for his safety. “They are just inert people, doing things without knowing what they are doing.”
The day had been quiet but suddenly shifted with a cacophony of heavy machine gun fire and explosions from rocket-propelled grenades as the squad led by Bohdan, which had remained behind, encountered a Russian armored personnel carrier. Why it remained in this place, otherwise empty of Russian soldiers, was unclear. Later, a commander said the vehicle was destroyed.
Serhiy, one of the soldiers, offered a more skeptical assessment of Ukrainian gains in Irpin. While perhaps the largest occupied town was now recaptured, he said, Ukraine’s control was uncertain. “We have a tentative frontline” now outside Irpin, he said, “but the key word is tentative.”
“Their goal is Kyiv,” he added. “They will come back. They will need to cover this ground again.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv.