Melitopol’s liberation may signal new counter-offensive by Ukraine military

16 December 2022, 04:55 PM
A shot from the Burevay RSZV (Photo:Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko via REUTERS)

A shot from the Burevay RSZV (Photo:Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko via REUTERS)

The liberation of the town of Melitopol may be the focus of another major counter-offensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Zaporizhzhya Oblast, which, if successful, would give the Ukrainian army a potential opportunity to oust Russian troops from southern Ukraine into Crimea.

The prospects of this hypothetical new counter-offensive are being discussed by the media outlets around the globe, amid increasingly frequent attacks by Ukrainian forces on bases and clusters of Russian troops around Melitopol.

NV looks over what’s known about this rumored counter-offensive in Zaporizhzhya Oblast.

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How Melitopol turned into a strategic hub of southern Ukraine during the war

Melitopol, home to about 150,000 people before February’s full-scale invasion, was one of the first cities captured by Russian troops at the beginning of the war. For Russia, it became part of the so-called “land bridge” along the Sea of Azov to occupied Crimea. The city is located at the intersection of two key highways and an important railway line that connect Russia with the peninsula and other occupied territories in the south of Ukraine.

If the Armed Forces succeeded in liberating Melitopol and regaining control of the city’s most important transport hubs, it would greatly complicate the provision of Russian troops in southern Ukraine and the possibility of reinforcing their units. However,recapturing Melitopol is not an easy task for Ukrainian forces. The New York Times noted that the nearest territory controlled by the Armed Forces of Ukraine is located about 65 km north of the city.

However, the preparatory actions of the Ukrainian army in recent weeks indicate thatit is in Zaporizhzhya Oblast, including Melitopol, that the next major counter-offensivemay unfold.

Using long-range precision missile strikes, sabotage missions, and targeted assassinations to hone in on the city, “Ukraine is stepping up efforts to isolate and degrade Russian forces in and around the strategically vital city of Melitopol,” the NYT reports.

NYT journalists believe this step may precede what is widely expected to be the next major phase of the war, a Ukrainian offensive to drive Russian forces from southern Ukraine.

Since Melitopol is a key hub, regaining control over it could help Ukraine’s forces take back not only the full Zaporizhzhya Oblast, but also the rest of neighboring Kherson Oblast as well. That could then potentially even provide the Ukrainian military a path to drive Russian forces all the way back to Crimea, which the Russians had controlled prior to the invasion.

“Fireworks” for the invaders and blowing up an important bridge: new land-mark Ukrainian army operations in Zaporizhzhya Oblast

A bridge in Melitopol across the Molochna River was sabotaged on the night of Dec. 12. The bridge connected the city with the village of Kostyantynivka and further, along the M14 highway, with Mariupol. The footage released shows that at least two pillars supporting the span had been blown up. The bridge’s destruction compromised a key Russian supply route to Melitopol from the south, the NYT reported.

The Ukrainian military did not officially comment on the incident. The bridge was supposedly sabotaged by Ukrainian guerrillas.

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov said it was through this crossing that the invaders had transferred military equipment from the eastern direction and used it especially actively after the damage to the Crimean bridge.

“The isolation of the combat theater is underway,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, a top advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Now they will have problems with logistics.”

This act of sabotage has become another episode in a series of strikes by the Armed Forces of Ukraine and attacks by pro-Ukrainian forces in the occupied territories – including strikes on Russian command centers, ammunition depots and supply routes in Melitopol.

“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,” the NYT wrote.

“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.”

According to Fedorov, in the last week alone, more than 10 Russian troop concentrations were destroyed near Melitopol. And a week earlier, there were about 20 such targets.

Specifically, during the weekend of Dec. 10-11, several important Russian military bases became the targets of attacks. For example, the Melitopol Christian Church – which the city’s exiled mayor said was being used as a Russian base – went up in flames on Dec. 11. Fedorov alluded to the episode on Sunday as “fireworks in the east of Melitopol,” the NYT wrote.

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“Fireworks” also rocked the Hunter’s Halt restaurant complex on the outskirts of Melitopol, a facility being used by Russian intelligence. According to Arestovych, many troops under the personal command of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov were among those killed in the attack on the restaurant complex.

Fedorov also said that at least 200 invaders had been killed in the attack, including Russian intelligence officers of the FSB, who were responsible for maintaining data-bases in the occupied territory.

“These were programmers who provided information for further terror of our civilian population,” Fedorov said.

A successful special operation to eliminate an enemy base on the territory of the company Politekhnika LLC in the village of Polohy, Zaporizhzhya Oblast, took place on Dec. 11. And on Dec. 12. Explosions rocked a local school in the village of Travneve in the Melitopol district, with about 150 Russian soldiers being inside the building.

In addition, Fedorov reported the destruction of Russian personnel at the checkpoint in Novobohdanivka (about 20 km from Melitopol toward the city of Zaporizhzhya), a railway junction important for the logistics of the Russian army. A Russian radar base, which is located one kilometer from Melitopol near the village of Semenivka, was also destroyed.

“This radar base served as an aid both for the organization of (Russian) air defense and the navigation of (Russian) aircraft,” Fedorov said.

“The Russian military no longer has a safe place on the territory of Melitopol, that’s for sure.”

Ukrainian military strikes at the Russians’ most important rearguard targets are not the only sign of the activity of Ukrainian forces in Zaporizhzhya Oblast.

Forbes military columnist David Axe drew attention to the fact that Russian and Ukrainian forces had recently swapped artillery around Hulyaipole and Polohy in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Oblast, 65 miles northeast of Russian-occupied Melitopol.

According to Axe, artillery-on-artillery “counterbattery” battles aren’t uncommon as Russia’s wider war on Ukraine grinds into its 10th month. But what’s special about the Dec. 9 artillery duel is what reportedly instigated it. According to Russian sources, the Ukrainian army is massing mechanized forces around Hulyaipole.

“If that’s true, it could be a sign that Ukraine’s fourth counter-offensive might be imminent, despite the onset of winter,” Axe said.

“This widely-anticipated attack – the Zaporizhzhya left hook – would aim to liberate much of southern Ukraine and push Ukrainian troops all the way to the narrow neck of land connecting mainland Ukraine to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russian forces seized in 2014.”

Axe reiterated that the sector along the Hulyaipole-Polohy axis since this spring has been the haunt of separate brigade-size Russian and Ukrainian units.

On the Russian side: the 291st Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment, which on paper has a couple thousand soldiers and scores of armored vehicles.

On the Ukrainian side: the 106th Territorial Defense Brigade, a lightly-equipped formation with a few thousand volunteers from the local area. The 19th Separate Rifle Battalion, a 400-strong active-army unit, reinforces the territorial brigade.

Axe stressed that it’s unclear what Ukrainian mechanized forces may have moved into Hulyaipole in possible anticipation of an offensive toward Melitopol.

However, if Russian sources are to be believed that enemy artillery really tried to stop this build up (to which the Armed Forces of Ukraine responded with their own artillery), this may indicate Ukraine’s desire to gather enough forces for such a break-through.

A drive on Melitopol may require more than just a couple heavy brigades, Axe said. Ukraine’s previous counter-offensives – around Kyiv in March and then around Kharkiv and Kherson six months later – each involved at least half a dozen heavy brigades.

“To liberate Melitopol then turn right and free southern Kherson Oblast on the left bank of the Dnipro River, a Ukrainian force would have to advance 200 miles and defeat a dozen or more Russian brigades and regiments,” he said.

However, Axe noted, the Ukrainians already have made efforts to fix some of those Russian units in place – first by pushing to the Dnipro’s right bank and then by landing special operations forces on the Kinburn Peninsula on the southern side of the river delta, where the Dnipro empties into the Black Sea.

But even if these forces can’t risk moving to react to a possible Ukrainian attack northeast of Melitopol, they still would be in the path of that attack as it hooked toward the mouth of the Dnipro and the land bridge with Crimea.

All that is to say, the Ukrainian armed forces will need to concentrate a lot of heavy forces in order for this ‘Zaporizhzhya left hook’ to succeed. There’s a good chance the Russians will see them coming together – and try to disrupt their assembly with artillery. Indeed, the spoiling bombardments may already have begun, Axe added.

Ukrainian experts comment on possible southern counter-offensive

Unlike some of their Western counterparts, Ukrainian military analysts have approached the topic of a possible counter-offensive near Melitopol and Zaporizhzhya Oblast more cautiously.

Military expert Denys Popovych believes that it is not necessary to expect another “goodwill gesture” from the invaders on the coast of the Sea of Azov, stating that the Russians were already trying to set up defensive lines in Zaporizhzhya Oblast.

“They see this as a direct threat to the so-called Crimean bridge, that then we will have the opportunity to shell it directly and thus destroy the connection – not only the land corridor to Crimea, but also this bridge,” Popovych said.

“Therefore, they have such a task. And I don’t think there will be a ‘goodwill gesture.’ Or even if it occurs, it will be under quite serious pressure from the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, military expert Dmytro Sniehyriov told Radio NV that the targeted strikes on clusters of enemy manpower and equipment near Melitopol could be called a “significative moment.”

“To understand the situation: this is the so-called cascading nature of operation planning, the first stage of which is inflicting fire damage on the clusters of heavy armored vehicles, warehouses with heavy armored vehicles and the whereabouts of the invading army,” Sniehyriov said.

He added that it is possible to “give cautious forecasts regarding the beginning of the liberation of Zaporizhzhya Oblast” and in this context called Melitopol “a key logistics hub.”

Sniehyriov believes that control over this city would open the possibility for the Armed Forces of Ukraine to enter the administrative borders of the southern regions of Ukraine and would endanger “the main so-called achievement of the Russian military – the land corridor from the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to Crimea.”

“In this way, we chop up and dismember the invader’s grouping, which is deployed in the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk Oblast and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, in addition to the left bank of Kherson Oblast,” the expert said.

Oleh Zhdanov, a reserve colonel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and a well-known military expert, in an interview with Radio NV has also opined on whether Ukraine’s attacks on Russian positions around Melitopol can be considered prepatory actions for a counter-offensive – drawing a comparison between the Ukrainian actions in Kherson Oblast prior to the liberation of Kherson city. Then, the Ukrainian military first struck the Antonivsky Bridge and a bridge at the Kakhovka hydropower plant, prior to beginning its liberation operation in earnest.

“I wouldn’t say this is preparation for an offensive,” Zhdanov said.

“I can say this is a kind of hybrid attack, a similar version of which we carried out on the right bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. We did not launch a frontal attack, but simply systematically destroyed the warehouses and logistics of this group of Russian troops on the right bank.”

As a result, according to Zhdanov, the Russians were forced to make a decision: either die under the fire of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, or leave the right bank, which they did.

“And then we chased after them and ousted the last units of the Russian troops,” he said.”

“Here (in Zaporizhzhya Oblast), in my opinion, the same thing is taking place. We’re controlling the railway near Volnovakha, and we’re trying to control the highways near Melitopol.”

Therefore, the grouping of Russian troops, which is located in the Zaporizhzhya and partly in the Kherson areas (between Vasylivka and Nova Kakhovka, Enerhodar), “remains without support, without the supply of necessary materials and resources.”

As a result, any theoretical counter-offensive will be able to deal not with fresh and equipped troops, but with under supplied and attrited Russian forces.

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