The Russian invasion of Ukraine to say the least has not gone according to plan the way the Kremlin envisioned it. Over 100,000 estimated casualties, military setbacks, and economic consequences are starting to be felt in Moscow.
With the liberation of Kherson, Russian Forces (RF) reconsolidated and fortified positions in the rest of the occupied territories in preparation of any future Ukrainian counter-offensives. The Wagner Group has constructed their own defensive line in the Donbas region and RF garrisoned in Crimea have begun digging trenches.
While Putin has been able to downplay the loss of Kharkiv and Kherson, the battlefield has become increasingly smaller, allowing for even more HIMARS strikes from the Ukrainian Armed Forces (ZSU). The Kremlin has faced open conflicts from hardliners—with scathing attacks from Kadyrov and Wagner towards the Ministry of Defense, due to battlefield setbacks.
With an increasingly smaller area of operations, there is one potential offensive that could mark the first stage of failure of Putin’s regime — and that’s a ZSU offensive on the now ever important city of Melitopol, which if liberated, could force Moscow to end its imperial ambitions in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces have begun shaping operations, looking for weak spots in Luhansk, the left bank of Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Some of the most persistent strikes have come to the city of Melitopol, where much of the Russian officer corps that retreated from Kherson reorganized.
Over the past several months, RF have moved heavy equipment and troops to help fortify Melitopol, in fear of a future offensive in the Zaporizhzhia oblast. Likewise, Kyiv has bolstered its troops in the capital of the oblast, potentially waiting for the mud to freeze to push for more future large scale offensives akin to Kharkiv and Kherson.
Melitopol has become extremely strategic and increasingly important in this war for several reasons. The city sits near the Sea of Azov and became a gateway for RF to lay siege upon Mariupol in the earlier weeks of the war. Putin has compared himself to Peter the Great, who solidified Russian hold over the sea.
With the liberation of Kherson this past November, Melitopol now serves as the land bridge between what is left of the Russian occupational forces in Ukraine. When Ukraine disabled the strategically important Kerch Bridge, Moscow now has to rely on the intersecting railways in Melitopol to supply their forces. Most of these railways are increasingly in the field of fire of HIMARS now that the battlefield has become increasingly compacted.
The loss of the strategic city of Melitopol would start the beginning of the end for Putin’s regime as both critical objectives of the Russian Federation that gambled its economy and international standing would come at a crossroads.
Melitopol is now the gateway of two of Moscow’s critical goals in maintaining what’s left of their imperial dreams. If the ZSU liberates the city, Crimea and the Donbas region will be officially split, putting the already heavily criticized Russian MoD in a precarious situation.
Putin would be forced to try to establish a mass offensive to link up his invasion force again, which has been difficult with Russia losing much of its pre-war combat power and being forced to have localized offensives, such as Wagner’s months-long assault on Bakhmut. Likewise, the autocrat would be forced to prioritize only one of his main objectives — either continue focusing on the Donbas or focus on consolidating defensive measures on Crimea. Either of these choices would bring heavy criticism directly to the top.
Near to Melitopol is the strategically important city of Mariupol, a city where Russia spent much of its combat power fighting against a smaller garrison of Azov and ZSU. Russian media paraded around the capture of the city as its biggest achievement of the war so far. If Kyiv liberates Melitopol, Mariupol would most likely become a major focal point again, setting Moscow back to its pre February 2022 lines.
Russia’s pretext for the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine was to “protect” the people of Donbas from “genocide,” and promote their “independence,” a blatant lie as Putin admitted Russia looks to annex as much territory as possible. For this, the country became the most sanctioned nation on earth and to possibly lose Melitopol to Kyiv’s forces would be cataclysmic for Putin’s reputation.
Crimea is labeled by Russia as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” to their main naval and air operations akin to how Britain labeled the isle of Cyprus the same. It is a strategic peninsula which, if liberated back to Ukraine, would greatly hamper what’s left of Moscow’s global power.
If Melitopol is liberated, all of the Crimean Peninsula would be in HIMARS range — the weapon system has been incredibly hard for Moscow’s air defense systems to intercept. This would force what is left of Russia’s Air Force and navy to move away from Crimea in fear of their Black Sea Fleet becoming targeted again. RF in Southern Ukraine would no longer have close air support, giving the ZSU more freedom of movement in the flat terrain of Zaporizhzhia. With the peninsula in artillery range, Ukraine wouldn’t necessarily have to push into the peninsula, as they could constantly harass and disrupt garrisoned RF with daily bombardment into eventually withdrawing on their own terms.
The invasion and annexation of Crimea by unmarked Russian forces in 2014 was the prelude to the beginning of Europe’s largest war since World War II. The taking of the peninsula is what put Russia on a path of economic and military collapse and international isolationism. A Ukrainian liberation would be the coup de grâce of Putin’s regime that he and his oligarch circle would never recover from.
The Zaporizhzhia front in the South will become a top priority for a ZSU offensive and for an RF defense. The strategic location of Melitopol, its ever important supply lines, and the potential turning point the city holds, will make it arguably the hardest fought major city in the war since the Battle of Mariupol, whenever Ukraine decides to strike on it.
[Photo by Oleksandra Grygorovych, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”