KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine is stepping up efforts to isolate and degrade Russian forces in and around the strategically vital city of Melitopol, ahead of what is widely expected to be the next major phase of the war, a Ukrainian offensive to drive Russian forces from southern Ukraine.
Kyiv has been using long-range precision missile strikes, sabotage missions and targeted assassinations to hone in on the city, which lies about 40 miles behind the front lines in the Zaporizhzhia region. Melitopol is known as the gateway to Crimea because of its location at the crossroads of two major highways and a crucial rail line linking Russia to that peninsula and other territory it occupies in southern Ukraine.
A bridge in Melitopol across the Molochna River was sabotaged Monday night — an act that both Ukrainian and Russian officials attributed to Kyiv’s forces — with video showing that two pillars supporting the span had been blown up. The bridge’s destruction compromised a key Russian supply route to Melitopol from the south.
Both Ukrainian and Russian officials have acknowledged the recent Ukrainian strikes and attempts to hit Russian command centers, ammunition depots and supply routes in Melitopol, whose prewar population was about 150,000. The aftermaths of some of the recent attacks have been captured on video broadcast on social media by Russian soldiers.
It is not clear whether the strikes were intended as a prelude to an offensive or a distraction as Ukrainian forces prepare to attack the Russians from a different direction. But military analysts described them as significant and said they fit with a pattern of Ukraine’s using precision missiles to strike Russian logistical targets.
Melitopol is a key hub, and regaining control over it could help Ukraine’s forces take back not only the full Zaporizhzhia region, but also the rest of neighboring Kherson. That could then potentially even give them a path to drive Russian forces all the way back to Crimea, which the Russians had controlled prior to the invasion.
“All this hangs completely on Melitopol,” Oleksiy Arestovych, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said over the weekend. “If Melitopol falls, the entire Russian defense up to Kherson collapses, and the Ukrainian armed forces jump right to the border with Crimea.”
Since being routed in northeastern Ukraine and forced to retreat from the southern port city of Kherson, Russian forces have fought to fortify defensive positions across a front line that stretches for hundreds of miles. Ukrainian forces continue to advance slowly in the south, but the most intense fighting has been in the east, where Russian forces are trying to seize the city of Bakhmut and Moscow continues to hurl soldiers into the battle.
“It seems that the enemy has an infinite human resource,” Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in a Ukrainian National Guard unit fighting in the area, told Ukrainian media. “The front line areas of Bakhmut have been completely destroyed. The rest of the city is under constant enemy fire, the enemy is destroying the city.”
The State of the War
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- Avoiding Questions: President Vladimir V. Putin will not hold his annual December news conference. The move comes as Russia’s economy falters and follows a series of military setbacks in Ukraine.
- Splintered Loyalties: The town of Sviatohirsk, in Ukraine’s east, is divided by where people’s allegiances lie: with Moscow or Kyiv.
- Brittney Griner’s Release: By detaining the athlete, the Kremlin weaponized pain and got the United States to turn over a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactic work in the war?
At the same time, Belarus — Ukraine’s neighbor to the north and the Kremlin’s closest ally — ordered a surprise assessment of the combat readiness of its armed forces. Russia used Belarus as a jumping-off point for its invasion in February, and there have been persistent concerns that it could do so again, possibly with Belarus’s own military joining in.
The State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said on Tuesday that it had not detected units on the border with Belarus that were capable of carrying out an invasion at this time.
“We will observe how the situation develops, including how close these units will come to the border with Ukraine,” Andriy Demchenko, a spokesman for the border guard, said at a news conference.
Ukraine also braced for another large-scale assault on its energy infrastructure, with President Volodymyr Zelensky warning the nation that more strikes are likely.
“The absence of large-scale missile strikes only means that the enemy is preparing for them and can strike at any time,” he said.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal of Ukraine was in Paris on Tuesday for a one-day summit that drew more than $1 billion in short-term international commitments to help Ukrainians survive the winter by repairing electricity, heating, water and health care infrastructure devastated by the Russian bombardment.
“The whole country is forced to live in conditions when electricity is available only few hours a day,” he said. “And all this happens in wintertime with subzero temperatures.”
Mr. Zelensky said blackouts are the “last hope” of the Russians as they flail on the battlefield. The Ukrainian military has made it clear that it does not want to give Russian forces time to regroup and recover, hitting Russian positions across occupied Ukraine. Some of the most notable strikes have been around Melitopol.
Melitopol was one of the first cities that Russian forces seized early in the war, an essential piece of their coveted land bridge along the Sea of Azov, linking the two areas of Ukraine they or their proxies had captured in 2014: Crimea, in the south, and parts of the Donbas region in the east.
Capturing the city and its transportation hubs would sever that bridge and make it harder to resupply and reinforce Russian forces in southern Ukraine, but taking it is a tall order. The nearest terrain held by Ukrainian forces is about 40 miles north of Melitopol.
On Sunday, the Melitopol Christian Church — which the city’s exiled mayor said was being used as a Russian base — had gone up in flames. The mayor, Ivan Fedorov, alluded to the episode on Sunday as “fireworks in the east of Melitopol.”
Videos released by the Russian state news media of rescuers at the scene indicated that even as Russian forces worked to extinguish the blaze at the church, they were still recovering from explosions in and around the city over the weekend. Residents reported at least 10 large explosions on Saturday night and Sunday morning, although it was not clear whether some of those were Russian air defenses at work.
In one instance, several blasts hit a hotel and restaurant complex on the outskirts of the city, according to Ukrainian officials and video of the aftermath. Mr. Fedorov said that the facility, known as the Hunter’s Halt, was being used by Russian intelligence and that dozens of Russian soldiers had been killed, with hundreds more wounded and evacuated to Crimea for medical care.
His full account could not be independently confirmed. But Evgeny Balitsky, the Russian-appointed head of the part of the Zaporizhzhia region that Russia claimed to annex in September, confirmed the strike at the complex, saying that the facility had been hit while “peaceful citizens” were eating on Saturday evening.
He said that two people had been killed and 10 injured, and that the recreation center had been destroyed. Video from the scene showed several victims, with the complex engulfed in flames.
Last week, the Kremlin-appointed deputy head of Melitopol survived an assassination attempt, Russian state media reported — the latest in a string of attacks on Moscow’s proxy administrators in occupied Ukraine. An explosive detonated near the Melitopol official, Nikolai Volyk, as he was leaving his home, according to the state-run News agency RIA Novosti.
On Tuesday afternoon, a loud explosion was reported in the center of the city, Mr. Federov said in a statement. The explosion was followed by sustained gunfire, he said. It was not immediately clear what might have been targeted, as Russian forces immediately blocked roads in the area.
Natalia, a retiree who lives in Melitopol, said she started to see a large influx of Russian soldiers in the southern city in late November. They took over schools, she said, and she saw Russian soldiers moving in weapons and heavy artillery to positions in and around the city.
“So many of them everywhere,” said Natalia, who asked that her last name be withheld out of concern for her safety.
Natalia also has a house outside the city and said she had watched as Russian planes and helicopters flew so low over the area that she could see “Z” painted on them, referring to the letter that has become a symbol of support for the invasion.
In early December, Russian forces nearly closed all access in and out of the city, said Mr. Fedorov, the exiled mayor.
In a hunt for partisans — guerrilla fighters and others working for the Ukrainian war effort — Russian forces have set up several roadblocks and are searching cars and people, Mr. Fedorov said.
After each explosion, Mr. Federov said, Russian forces go house to house. If they find any Ukrainian symbols or weapons, even hunting guns, they take the residents in for questioning and detain some of them at length.
Many prisoners, he said, are now being forced to help dig trenches around Melitopol.
Maria Varenikova and Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting.