Deep inside Russian-controlled territory in southern Ukraine, there are already signs that a battle may be looming in the occupied city of Melitopol, according to Ivan Fedorov, the city’s exiled Ukrainian mayor.
More than 20 explosions have gone off at Russian military sites in Melitopol in the past three weeks, including at an airfield and at a warehouse used by Moscow’s forces to repair armored vehicles, Mr. Fedorov said in an interview. He declined to say whether the sites were hit by long-range Ukrainian artillery or by Ukrainian resistance fighters operating covertly in Russian-held areas.
Tass, the Russian state news agency, has in recent days carried at least one report of explosions in Melitopol. It was not possible to independently verify the accounts of Mr. Fedorov, whose regular social media updates on the situation in Melitopol have made him one of the more prominent Ukrainian mayors in exile from occupied territory.
“Russian bases are regularly bombed,” he said in an interview this week in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. He declined to comment on Ukraine’s military plans but said the uptick in explosions appeared to be “preparation for the liberation of our territory.”
Regaining control of Melitopol, where road and railroad hubs link Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula, is believed to be one possible objective of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. In the past, Ukrainian officials have sought to both play up possible counteroffensives and also sow confusion about where and when they might be launched, part of the ongoing information battle in the nearly 14-month-long war.
Melitopol was seized by Russian forces early in their full-scale invasion. As residents protested the occupation, Mr. Fedorov was detained by Russian forces, then released. He has since relocated to another part of Ukraine, where he said he continues to perform mayoral duties.
Mr. Fedorov, who said his information comes from residents still living in Melitopol, offered a few examples of what he said indicated that Russia is preparing for a Ukrainian assault in the south. He said that the occupation authorities have recently appointed Russian citizens as mayors of small towns and villages around Melitopol, replacing Ukrainian collaborators drawn from the local population, in an apparent effort to solidify political control. They also are stepping up efforts to evacuate civilians from small towns near the front line, where trucks with loudspeakers pass through the streets calling on residents to leave, according to Mr. Fedorov.
“We understand there is some panic. Yesterday it was ‘Russia forever,’” he said, referring to the mantra of occupation officials. “Now they say ‘leave.’”
Regaining Melitopol could allow Ukraine to sever transportation lines that Russia uses to supply its troops in portions of the occupied Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. But fighting in the city would carry risks for civilians as well as Russian military and government personnel, Mr. Fedorov said.
Melitopol had a prewar population of about 150,000, about half of whom fled after the invasion last year, he said. Subsequently, between 50,000 and 70,000 internally displaced people and Russian government employees moved into the city, he said, describing it as “filled with civilians.”
He acknowledged that any attempt by Ukrainian forces to recapture the city would “be hard” and echoed complaints from other Ukrainian officials that Western allies dallied in arming Ukraine for a counterattack.
“The partners waited a long time in providing weapons,” he added. “The Russians had time to prepare.”