Ukraine struck a railway depot with Himars and knocked out power supplies in a Russian-occupied city deep behind the front line in what appeared to be preparation for a much-anticipated counter offensive.
Melitopol, with a pre-war population of 150,000, was captured by Russia on the first days of the invasion last year.
It is the base of the Russian-controlled administration of Zaporizhzhia region, which Russia claims to have annexed, and a key logistics node for the Russian forces fighting in southern Ukraine.
The strike may have been designed to disrupt Russian lines of communication ahead of a much-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Russian Telegram channels shared images of smoke rising over the rail depot and the wreckage of electrical equipment at a substation after the overnight strike on the city. No casualties were immediately reported.
Vladimir Rogov, the Russian-installed regional official, said on Telegram that Ukrainians had used US high-precision Himars rockets.
The city is roughly 80km (55 miles) behind Russian lines. The GMLRS rockets Ukraine fires from its Himars and M270 precision artillery systems are usually described as having a range of about 50 miles.
Ukraine has recently been promised longer-range weapons by Western allies, including the US-supplied GLSDB.
Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defence minister, said in an interview with Estonian television that the spring offensive was likely to start in April or May, depending on the weather. He said it would mean attacks in “several directions”.
The Ukrainian generals are trying to keep their Russian counterparts guessing about the direction of the main effort. However, one theory is that they will try to strike south towards Melitopol in order to cut Russia’s “land bridge” to Crimea.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces claimed to have held back several renewed Russian attacks near Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
The British Ministry of Defence said Russian attacks near the town had slowed compared with recent weeks, and that the Ukrainians appeared to have succeeded in pushing the Russians back from the 0506, a key supply route.
Wagner troops had come within a few hundred metres in a bid to cut the road earlier this month.
Russian forces have been assaulting Bakhmut since August and have succeeded in flanking it to the north and south, but have so far failed to close the encirclement.
The battle has become politically totemic for both sides. Ukraine’s top generals have resisted pressure to withdraw, apparently in the hope of tying down Russian troops and inflicting as many casualties as possible ahead of the spring offensive.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, said that Ukraine must prevent Russia capturing the town because Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, could exploit such a victory in his dealings with China and the West.
“If he will feel some blood – smell that we are weak – he will push, push, push,” he told AP on Wednesday.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which has led the assault on the city, insisted Ukraine has come off worse in the eight-month battle – but admitted his own forces had also suffered badly.
“The battle for Bakhmut today has already practically destroyed the Ukrainian army, and unfortunately, it has also badly damaged the Wagner Private Military Company,” he said in an audio message.
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