Mariupol Strikes Raise Questions About Possible New Ukrainian Long-Range Weapons

For the second night in a row, the city of Mariupol, fully captured by Russia in May, was rocked by explosions, according to the Mariupol City Council Telegram channel.

Far behind the front lines, the attack on Mariupol raises questions about whether Ukraine is using a new type of munition, either provided by allies like the U.S. or domestically produced.

“Explosions were heard in the Kalmius district,” the Mariupol City Council Telegram channel reported Wednesday night local time. “Meanwhile, two explosions are reported at 10:51 p.m. and 10:53 p.m. in the area of the plant named after Ilyich. We hope that our Defenders will continue to hit the positions of the Russian occupiers.”

These latest attacks follow about a dozen strikes on Mariupol Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, according to Ukrainian Telegram channels

“So far, 11 explosions are known [to have occured] in the Russian-occupied city,” the Mariupol City Council Telegram reported Wednesday morning. “The first explosion occurred at [10:33 P.M. local time]. “There is preliminary information about two hits – in the AS-2 area (Central district) and Stan-3000 (Kalmius district). Probably in places where enemy forces are concentrated.”

The Telegram channel of Mariupol mayoral advisor Petro Andriushchenko later confirmed a strike on the Kalmius district.

“We also confirm the liquidation of two fuel depots at the bases of the occupiers in the Kalmius district,” he wrote Wednesday.

The Ukrainian Ukrinform media outlet reported that Russian military targets at the airport and a nearby industrial plant were also hit.

“It was confirmed that an enemy ammunition depot at the airport and an invaders’ base at the Illich Iron and Steel Works Plant were struck,” according to Ukrinform. “On the morning of February 22, a powerful explosion rang out in Mariupol. Explosions were also recorded near the urban-type settlement of Talakivka in the city’s Kalmiuskyi district. Enemy warehouses located on the territory of the seaport were struck.”

Video emerged on social media purporting to be Russian air defenses being activated over Mariupol.

The extent of the damage, however, is unclear. No images have emerged on social media showing any new destruction in a city that was devastated by months of intense fighting that culminated with the ending of the siege of the Azovstal steel plant.

The local Telegram channels do not say what was used on either Tuesday or Wednesday to hit those targets, which are about 80 kilometers (nearly 50 miles) away from the nearest Ukrainian forces. That is just outside of the precision-guided munitions – that can hit targets out to around 43 miles (70 kilometers) – fired by M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS and M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) provided to Ukraine. 

While it is possible Ukrainian forces could have pushed a HIMARS or M270 closer to Mariupol for the strikes, the distance from the front lines has led to speculation that Ukrainian troops used a new, longer-range munition.

On Tuesday, before any of these strikes took place, we reported that the pro-Russian Rybar Telegram channel claimed (without providing proof or saying how they knew) that “at least one” Ukrainian HIMARS crew in the Donetsk Oblast city of Bogatyr “received” the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB).

With a range of around 94 miles, or 150 kilometers, the GLSDB can reach targets more than twice as far away as the munitions fired by the HIMARS and M270 and well within reach of Mariupol.

The Pentagon on Tuesday deferred questions about whether the GLSDB has been deployed by Ukrainians to Ukraine, which has not commented publicly.

The Ukrainian General Staff said only that Ukraine’s air force had launched eight attacks on the temporary bases of Russian troops and two strikes on the positions of Russia’s antiaircraft missile systems, The New York Times reported.

The New Voice of Ukraine raised the possibility that a domestically produced weapon was used to hit Mariupol.

“Other Russian sources later said that the weapon used may have been Ukraine’s Vilkha-M heavy multiple launch rocket system (based on the Soviet Smerch system) which is reported to have a range of 130 kilometers [about 81 miles],” the news outlet reported Wednesday. “Like HIMARS, Vilkha fires guided rockets, but guidance is independent of the GPS satellite navigation system.”

In August, we first raised the question of whether Ukraine was developing its own ballistic missiles.

In addition to rocket munitions, Ukraine has also used long-range kamikaze drones to hit long-distance targets both inside Russia itself and the Crimean peninsula it has occupied since 2014. And they have also hit targets with sabotage raids and through the use of partisans.

Regardless of what hit Mariupol, that it would be a target now after months of occupation by the Russians is significant.

Ukraine has made no secret of its interest in launching a new offensive toward Crimea, which would have the added effect of cutting off Russian forces now in the Donbas from the peninsula.

That’s something we discussed last week with Ben Hodges, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded U.S. Army Europe:

To liberate Crimea, Ukraine will need to make it “untenable for the Russian Army, Navy and Air Forces on the peninsula and then occupying it.”

That means starting with “isolating it with long-range precision strike against the only two land lines of communication that connect it to Russia – the Kerch Bridge, already severely damaged [in an Oct. 8 attack] – and the so-called ‘land bridge’ which connects Crimea to Russia via Mariupol and Melitopol along the coastline of [the] Azov Sea. Targeting that transportation infrastructure will begin the isolation of Crimea from resupply or movement.”

The attack appeared to shake up Russian milblogger Ivan Utenkov, who said he was surprised by the explosions, which he surmised were caused by “some new munitions.”

“The enemy has definitely started something and the next couple of days will be hell in that area,” he said.

Whether the attack on Mariupol is the beginning of an operation to shape the battlefield remains unknown. But it is something we will certainly be keeping an eye on.

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Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.