Overview:

Ukraine's strike on the Kerch Bridge was a major coup, but a hit that has many other ramifications, some good, some not so much.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When it was built in 2018, the Kerch Bridge was the pride of Russian imperialism, much to the chagrin of the Ukrainians. The construction spans the Kerch Strait that separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov, connecting mainland Russia to the illegally annexed region of Crimea.

Crimea is a crucial area for the Russians since it is home to Sevastopol, a Russian naval port big enough to be home to their Black Sea Fleet, giving them strategic access to the Mediterranean and global trade.

The purple regions were those illegally annexed in 2014 by Russia, with the southern region being Crimea, connected on its eastern side to the Russian mainland via the Kerch Bridge.
Image: War Mapper. https://twitter.com/War_Mapper/status/1579266141284769792/photo/1

On Saturday, a huge explosion caused two sections of one of the road bridges to collapse into the sea, triggering (almost certainly without coincidence) a fuel train to burst into flames on the rail section, at least partially disabling the railway.

The strike was incredibly painful to Russia for a number of reasons.

1. The public humiliation

Putin has been struggling to sell the success of this war to his public, with polls showing a drop in support. The bridge was supposed to be safe from Ukranian intentions: too far from missile installations, and with haulage being checked before traveling onto the structure. The disabling of the bridge in a very public way would have been a huge embarrassment for the Kremlin showing that the mouse can very much scare the bear.

The cost of the bridge and the iconic status it holds for the Russians, particularly the pro-Russian Crimeans who live nearby, means that this will sting. The downside is that Putin is not one to suffer public humiliation lightly.

2. The symbolism

Building on the indignity, the shame for Putin was made all the worse for the fact that it coincided with his 70th birthday. This is a man keen on symbolism, and the timing will certainly have not been lost on him. This turns a strategic strike into a personal affront, and an injured bear—whether physically or in terms of pride—will lash out all the more.

3. The logistical nightmare

The Russian army is famously a railway army. The country is huge, with transport possible only via extensive railway networks. When they fight abroad, this makes their logistics almost entirely dependent on rail. And if that railway supply is hindered, the army suffers. Troops aren’t so useful without ammunition, equipment, fuel, and food.

The Ukrainians have been inflicting a painful counteroffensive on the Russians for some weeks in the southern Kherson region. Here, the Russians were sucked into pouring manpower and equipment into the area to the west of the Dnipro River in what could well have been a clever feint. After this reinforcement with some 20-25,000 troops fortifying the region, the Ukrainians blew up bridge after pontoon bridge after ferry, trapping the Russian troops without access to supplies.

All these troops in the Kherson region, and the entire southern frontline across the Zaporizhzhia Oblast (state or regions) to the north of Crimea, are supplied by rail through Crimea. Over the Kerch Bridge.

There is only one other route, which comes westward through the Zaporizhzhia Oblast, north of the occupied cities of Mariupol and Melitopol. What was less reported in the media was the fact that a crucial railway junction in Ilovays’k, just southeast of the city of Donetsk, was also hit.

These twin hits have meant that the Russian army, hungry for fuel for its tanks and jets, ammunition for its artillery that has a voracious appetite, and supplies for its troops, is in serious logistical trouble.

Map to show the two locations of the simultaneous hits (adapted from War Mapper – https://twitter.com/War_Mapper/status/1579266141284769792/photo/1). The black lines represent railway lines.

Those troops on the Kherson front were already in dire straits, and matters will only worsen.

Retired US Department of Defense Civil Servant and logistics expert Trent Telenko has carefully detailed how much of a problem this is for Russia. The country’s construction and military sectors are so beset with corruption and an inability to manufacture and use prefabricated concrete structures effectively that they will not be able to easily overcome such a hurdle. The problem for Putin is “politics can’t cheat either structural physics or wartime military logistics.”

He continues: “Russia’s air bases in Crimea are going to run out of fuel at current sortie rates or simply fly less. The Russian fuel supplies past the Donbas border are slowly drying up, immobilizing Russian military vehicle traffic in Ukraine’s south. And we are all going to be treated to the spectacle of the Kerch railway bridge collapse in the near future with a loaded train falling into the strait.”

4. Supplies for Crimea, and an escape route

As soon as the bridge was hit, there were queues of vehicles at gas stations and people at supermarkets. Not only this, but Crimeans are worried. When the naval base at Sevastopol was recently hit by a kamikaze drone, Crimeans realized that the war was coming dangerously close to their doorstep. As a result, many took the opportunity to get out of Dodge, fearing the worst.

The bridge hit has been no different.

People have a canny ability to ignore wars until it affects their daily lives.

If Kherson is liberated and the Ukrainians are able to advance toward Crimea, two things will happen. First, they will switch off fresh water supply at the Nova Kahokha dam (something they did in 2014, causing droughts and water rationing for 8 years). Second, Crimea will be in range of the much-vaunted HIMARS rocket launchers.

And then that bridge will be sorely needed as an escape route.

The retaliation

Of course, Putin was never going to let this lie. To ensure more injury was to be paid for the insult, Putin had on Saturday appointed Sergey Surovikin, the “Butcher of Syria”, as commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine.

What came after the Kerch Bridge attack was right out of his playbook, given the destruction evidenced in Syria, in places like Aleppo.

And what came was a barrage of cruise missiles and kamikaze drones across twenty cities the length and breadth of Ukraine including its capital Kyiv. The fact that these predominantly took place at rush hour tells you all you need to know about the intentions and objectives.

This was vengeance, pure and simple. The destruction of energy infrastructure that predominantly affects civilians, and missiles landing in streets at rush hour, leaves nothing but the sourest taste of evil in one’s mouth.

There is something I have called “The Putin-Ukraine Paradox” and this morning’s missile attacks have exemplified this. The better Ukraine does, the worse the outcome will be for Ukrainians. As they show Putin and his army up, Putin gets angrier. And when Putin gets angry, he does irrational things driven by an emotionally brittle sense of self.

If Ukraine deal Russia another serious and public blow, the question on everyone’s lips will be a nuclear one.

But, luckily, the likelihood of such an outcome of affected by a whole host of other variables, which means this eventuality is very improbable.

[For daily updates on the conflict in Ukraine, see Jonathan MS Pearce’s Ukraine War Update on YouTube.]

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...