Ukrainian partisans killed three Russian officers in a bomb attack over the weekend, military authorities said, in a sign Ukraine is stepping up its harassment of Russia’s forces in the absence of decisive territorial progress on the battlefield.
Ukrainian forces acting behind enemy lines have staged two assassination attempts on pro-Moscow officials in recent days. These forays, coupled with a campaign of missile and drone strikes on Russian military infrastructure, appear to be increasingly important tactics to keep the pressure on Moscow.
The Ukrainian defense intelligence unit described the bomb attack Saturday in the occupied city of Melitopol in the south of the country as an act of revenge and said that at least three Russian national guard officers were killed. Russia’s defense ministry has not commented on the attack, and it was not possible to verify it independently because it took place behind Russian lines.
“The strike caused a panic in Melitopol, as many Russian proxy police officers rushed to the scene with their sirens on,” the intelligence unit said Sunday on the Telegram messaging app. “A while later, they dragged a car that had been burned near the headquarters through the occupied city to their station.”
Melitopol, in the Zaporizhzhia region, was captured by Russia early in the war and is a target for Ukraine’s counteroffensive launched in June, not least because of its proximity to the Sea of Azov. Pro-Moscow authorities have attempted to promote Russian culture and identity in the city, which remains a center for Russian forces as well as a hub for military logistics.
Melitopol is also a target for partisans, small groups of fighters who operate clandestinely, to conduct acts of sabotage and assassinations to disrupt the Kremlin’s control.
Late last month, Russian officials reported that Oleg Tsaryov, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament who had supported Moscow’s invasion last year, had been shot in Yalta, a city in the occupied region of Crimea. Ukraine’s security service said that it had tried to assassinate him. Tsaryov later posted a video on social media showing that he had survived.
In addition, Mykhailo Filiponenko, the former head of a pro-Russian militia in the Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, was assassinated last week in a car explosion, according to Russia’s state news agency, RIA Novosti.
“Ukraine appears to be intensifying attacks against Russian military, logistics and other high-profile assets in rear areas in occupied Ukraine and Russia,” the Institute for the Study of War, a research group based in Washington, said in a report Sunday.
The attacks come as the military counteroffensive launched by Ukraine’s government in Kyiv in June has largely stalled, having failed to accomplish its core objectives. Ukraine has been unable to secure a decisive breach of Russian defenses in the south of the country, or to retake substantial territory in the east.
Indeed, little ground has changed hands in Ukraine this year despite intense fighting and substantial casualties on both sides, and Russia still retains control over around one-fifth of Ukraine’s territory.
Military analysts say that in the coming weeks, progress for Ukraine in the Zaporizhzhia region will be even harder to achieve because the onset of rainy weather will make it more difficult to use mechanized military transport and because Ukraine’s army will need to rest and rotate its troops.
“There is still fighting there, just to be clear, but there isn’t much of anything that could be described as a push at this stage,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on the Russian and Ukrainian militaries.
Missile strikes in Crimea and in the territory that Russia holds in the south and east have also become a primary tactic. Ukraine first raised the tempo of its missile and drone strikes during the summer, when it became clear that the counteroffensive had not led to rapid progress, as the country’s commanders had hoped.
Those strikes have yielded notable successes, forcing Russia to pull back some of its naval fleet from Crimea and disrupting military logistics. In one high-profile success, missiles fired by Ukraine in September damaged the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.
Still, it’s unclear whether the Ukrainian missile strike and assassination campaigns can provide a tipping point for a wider territorial breakthrough, said Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land war studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British research group.
For that to happen, he said, the country’s NATO allies would most likely have to address the broader military needs detailed recently by Ukraine’s top commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny. In an interview with the Economist, Zaluzhny said Ukraine needed better fighter jets and better electronic warfare capability, among other things, if it is to break a stalemate.
In the short term, Barry drew a distinction between the combat taking place along the front lines, which he described as the close battle, and Ukraine’s campaign of strikes and other attacks behind the front lines, which he called the deep battle.
“The cumulative effects of the deep battle should make the close battle much easier,” he said. “And the more Ukraine erodes Russian military capability in the widest possible sense with the deep battle, the more chance there is of a Russian collapse.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.