In the nearly two weeks since Vladimir Putin annexed Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in a lavish Kremlin ceremony, Russian forces have been withdrawing there, outnumbered and outgunned.
They now face a much bigger struggle to supply their front lines after an explosion ripped through the crucial bridge connecting the annexed Crimean peninsula to the Russian mainland on Saturday morning.
The apparent attack caused two of the Kerch Bridge’s road sections to crash into the sea and set fire to a nearby rail shipment of fuel tanks, halting all traffic on the route the Russian military relies on to ship supplies and equipment to the war zone in southern Ukraine. .
It was a deeply personal humiliation for the president of Russia, who opened the $3 billion, 12-mile infrastructure link by driving a Kamaz truck over it in 2018.
Built to cement Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula, the smoking bridge has overnight become a symbol of Russia’s struggle to counter the Ukrainian advance in the southeast.
Michael Kofman, a military analyst and director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a US defense think tank, said the loss of the rail link would “substantially restrict Russia’s ability to move troops and supplies through Crimea.” until they can fix that.”
The only other supply route is through newly annexed territory in southeastern Ukraine. But the so-called “land bridge” that Russia has created by annexing four regions is difficult to cross. Railway lines are few and far between, mostly single track, and must cross bridges over rivers and irrigation canals that flow into the Crimea and the Azov and Black seas.
Ukrainian missile attacks on rail infrastructure had already significantly limited Russia’s ability to resupply forces in the south overland. Russia has also lost a significant number of trucks during the invasion.
“It’s going to be very difficult for them to fix it any other way. They really have to move heaven and earth to reopen that rail line,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews.
The disruption could help Ukraine expand its counteroffensive and try to recapture annexed regions from Russia, O’Brien added.
The Russians are “in real, real trouble,” he said. “The Russian army is in bad shape. Morale is not good. The offer is not great. The Ukrainian army is really big and now it is very well trained and ready for combat. It’s hard to see the balance going more towards them than it is now.”
Ukraine’s hopes of retaking the peninsula were seen as pipe dreams for years, including in Kyiv, but now seem less fanciful as its troops press their advantage on the ground.
Although Ukraine has not taken credit for them, the attack on the bridge is the latest in a daring series of attacks on military infrastructure on the peninsula and elsewhere behind enemy lines.
These have gradually undermined Russians’ sense of normalcy that accompanied Putin’s annexation in 2014 and the first six months of Moscow’s “special military operation,” a term that evokes far-flung conflicts in places like Syria rather than brutal reality. of the war against the Russians. thresholds
After Ukraine defeated Russian forces in the eastern Kharkiv region in September, Putin shattered that internal illusion by mobilizing army reserves, annexing the four regions and threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend them.
But that escalation has failed spectacularly. Some 100,000 Russians have fled to Kazakhstan to avoid conscription, as many as joined the army, while Ukraine’s steady advance through territories Putin claims are part of Russia has undermined his own will to defend them.
The exact circumstances of the Kerch Bridge attack remain unclear. Russia claims a truck was packed with explosives, despite having passed inspection on the mainland minutes earlier, and accused Ukraine of terrorism.
Ukrainian officials gleefully celebrated the explosion but did not confirm Kyiv’s involvement, while casting suspicion on Moscow’s version of events and suggesting it could be part of security forces infighting in the blame game for Russia’s failures.
The Kremlin has allowed Russia’s military to face harsh public criticism in state media and from some officials in recent days as it seeks a scapegoat for battlefield failures.
Ardent supporters of the war have called on Putin to further intensify the destruction of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
“We are already villains to the Western world. So let’s scare them instead of being a laughing stock,” Vladimir Soloviev, one of Russia’s most prominent state television commentators, wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Ukraine must plunge into the Middle Ages. Bridges, dams, railways, power plants and other similar infrastructure objects must be destroyed.”
The cause of the explosion “doesn’t matter as much as the net result,” said Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at the Kyiv National Institute for Strategic Studies.
Russia will likely be forced to rely on the limited stocks of weapons, ammunition and other military supplies it already has on the peninsula to supply the front line in mainland Ukraine for days or even weeks to come, Bielieskov said. That means you may need to be cautious about the rate of materiel spending as Ukraine’s counteroffensive pushes south.
The Kremlin tried to project a sense of calm, saying Putin had ordered an investigation into the incident but had no plans to address the Russian people.
Within hours, authorities said they were reopening the bridge to road and rail traffic, assuring Crimeans that food and gasoline supplies would continue and projecting implicit guarantees that Russia would still be able to supply the front line in Ukraine. Marat Khusnullin, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional Development, toured the damaged bridge after dark and oversaw a test ride with a multi-car freight train, state news agency RIA reported.
“Hitting the bridge was considered one of the red lines that could provoke the worst case scenario: a furious reaction that included nuclear retaliation,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R. Politik, wrote on Telegram.
But “experience shows us that Putin always reacts very late to military setbacks. . . and he swallows them; instead of hitting back, he often pretends nothing actually happened,” he added.
Russia’s ability to retaliate is limited by its own poor performance on the battlefield and its inability to establish air superiority, O’Brien said.
“They have to do it from separate missiles because they are afraid to fly over Ukraine. But it just doesn’t seem like they’re accurate enough, and the Ukrainians are good at intercepting enough of them that they can’t do it.”