A car bomb killed at least one person on Friday night in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine, according to Ukrainian and Russian officials, highlighting the war’s reach far beyond the front lines as Ukrainian partisans aim to undermine their occupiers.
The blast occurred in Mykhailivka, a town in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region. The vehicle targeted was carrying “four supporters of the Kremlin,” said Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor in exile of the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, about 30 miles south, on the Telegram messaging app.
Vladimir Rogov, a Russian occupation official in the Zaporizhzhia region, confirmed the attack in a Telegram post, saying the bomb killed a “local businessman” named Sergei Didovoduk and injured two others.
The attack comes as Ukrainian forces are preparing for a highly anticipated counteroffensive that analysts believe will take place in southern Ukraine. Kyiv’s troops will probably aim to sever the land routes that connect Russia to Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, according to analysts and Western officials.
“We are ready,” said President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal that was published on Saturday.
Much is riding on the coming counteroffensive, especially on the heels of Russia’s recent capture of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. In the meantime, partisan attacks like the one on Friday night have become a staple in occupied areas as Ukrainian insurgents target the Russian military and so-called Russian collaborators.
Mr. Rogov portrayed Mr. Didovoduk as a member of local civil society who “regularly fed neighbors in need in his cafe for free.” According to Mr. Rogov and unverified footage of the aftermath of the attack posted on social media, Mr. Didovoduk died in a Soviet-made Niva car, an unassuming sport utility vehicle.
Ukrainian officials suggested Mr. Didovoduk’s cafe, the Hetman, was frequented by Russian soldiers and occupation officials.
The cafe is named after the customary title of the head of the Cossack state that existed in Ukraine in the 17th and 18th centuries and played a major role in the foundation of modern Ukraine.
Mr. Didovoduk was registered to compete for Russia’s governing party in upcoming local elections, Mr. Rogov said. The Kremlin has pushed forward with plans to stage local elections in September in four Ukrainian regions that Russia illegally annexed last year, an attempt to legitimize the moves despite the constantly changing frontiers of the territory under Russian control.
Ukraine has denounced the elections in the annexed regions — Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Luhansk and Donetsk — as a sham.
The killing of Mr. Didovoduk also raises questions about the legality of partisan attacks under the internationally recognized law of war, including whether partisans are considered combatants.
Ukrainian partisans say they are civilians and the legal basis for their activity is regulated under Ukrainian law, not the laws of war that include prohibitions on a soldier targeting a civilian official. But under international laws, civilians become combatants when they start taking part in hostilities.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Ukraine correspondent and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff
Anatoly Kurmanaev is a foreign correspondent covering Russia’s transformation after its invasion of Ukraine. @akurmanaev
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