Russian troops occupying the southern city of Melitopol—touted by military experts as the gateway to the Crimea peninsula—are already digging in and preparing for a Ukrainian siege, according to the exiled mayor of the city.
Ivan Fedorov, who was briefly captured by invading Russian troops before being freed in a prisoner exchange, told journalists at a Media Center Ukraine briefing on Wednesday that locals had been passing information about Russian activities to Ukrainian forces, who sit on the other side of the front line bisecting the Zaporizhzhia region.
“They prepare the city for siege and defense,” Fedorov said of Russian troops in and around Melitopol, which is one of the few major cities to have been taken by the invading forces in a year of fighting.
“They tried to set up four shelters,” the mayor said, including in the city’s agrarian university, the Department of State Security Service building, and the railway culture house.
Russian soldiers are seen patrolling the streets on February 25, 2023 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Russian troops occupying the southern city of Melitopol are already digging in and preparing for a Ukrainian siege. Cemal Yurttas / dia images via Getty Images
“There is information from the locals that they built underground premises, digging sea freight containers into the ground, thus establishing their shelters,” Fedorov said. “They are trying to increase the number of personnel and to build more fortifications in the city.”
Newsweek was not able to independently verify these claims.
Melitopol is the second largest city in the Zaporizhzhia region and has become a key administrative and logistics center for the Russian occupation forces. Fedorov said locals are suffering under increasingly tight restrictions, partially in response to intense partisan activity that has claimed the lives of several high-profile pro-Russian collaborators.
The city will also be a key target for future potential Ukrainian offensives. If Kyiv’s forces are able to liberate the city, Moscow’s land bridge connecting Crimea to Russia will be imperiled. In January, Fedorov said his hometown was the “the key to Crimea.”
Crimea–occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014–is a key war goal for Ukraine, and leaders in Kyiv have made clear their intentions to liberate the peninsula despite Russian threats of escalation. Ukrainian long-range strikes have repeatedly targeted Russian military targets on the peninsula, and in October 2022 a truck bomb temporarily closed the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Crimea to Russia. Western officials, however, have expressed doubt about the Ukrainian military’s ability to seize back the region, while others have warned that Moscow may resort to weapons of mass destruction if its control of Crimea is threatened.
Melitopol’s importance in Russian defensive planning, the mayor said, is clear. “The Russians picked it as the administrative and logistic outpost, and they concentrate their material and personnel there,” he explained.
The city will also be vital to reinforcing regional units and preventing a Ukrainian breakthrough to the north, Fedorov said. On Wednesday morning, “more than 50 items of materiel were moving through Melitopol in the direction of the Zaporizhzhia section of the front line,” he said.
Fedorov said Russian forces have also set up two areas in the area around Melitopol to train newly mobilized recruits arriving from Russia, part of the 300,000 soldiers called into service by the Kremlin in September 2022 in a bid to stall Ukrainian counteroffensives.
Newsweek has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry.
Two Ukrainian artillerymen stand close to a BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher stationed on the front line, in the south east Kharkiv region, on February 25, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images