In the nearly two weeks since Vladimir Putin annexed Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhia regions in a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin, Russian forces have retreated there, unmanned and outgunned.
They now face a far bigger battle to resupply their front lines after a blast ripped through the crucial bridge linking the annexed Crimea peninsula to mainland Russia early on Saturday.
The apparent attack crashed two of the road spans of the Kerch Bridge into the sea and set fire to a nearby railroad load of fuel tanks, shutting down all traffic on the route that the Russian military is required to take to transport supplies and equipment to the war zone in the United States to transport southern Ukraine was stopped.
It was a deeply personal humiliation for the Russian president to open the $3 billion 12-mile infrastructure link by driving a Kamaz truck over it in 2018.
The smoldering bridge, built to solidify Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula, has overnight become a symbol of Russia’s struggle to deal with Ukraine’s 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 “significantly limit Russia’s ability to move troops and supplies through Crimea until they are able to.” are to fix it”.
The only other route of supply is through the recently annexed area of south-eastern Ukraine. But the so-called “land bridge” created by Russia by annexing four regions is difficult to cross. Railway lines are few and far between, mostly single-track, and have to cross bridges over rivers and irrigation canals that flow to the Crimea and the Azov and Black Seas.
Ukrainian missile attacks on rail infrastructure had already severely limited Russia’s ability to resupply troops in the south overland.
Russia also lost a significant number of trucks during the invasion, making it all the more important to restore rail service, according to Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews.
“It will be very difficult for them to make amends in any other way. They really are going to have to move heaven and earth to reopen this railway line,” O’Brien said.
The disruption could help Ukraine expand its counter-offensive and try to retake the 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 great. The supply is not great. The Ukrainian army is now really big and really well trained and combat ready. It’s hard to imagine the balance coming her way any more than it is now.”
For years, Ukraine’s hopes of retaking the peninsula were pipe dreams even in Kyiv, but now seem less imaginative as its troops play to their advantage on the ground.
Although Ukraine has not acknowledged them, the attack on the bridge is the latest in an increasingly daring series of attacks on military infrastructure on the peninsula and elsewhere behind enemy lines.
These have gradually shattered the sense of normality among Russians that accompanied Putin’s 2014 annexation and the first six months of Moscow’s “special military operation,” a term more reminiscent of distant conflicts in countries like Syria than the brutal reality of war against the Russians. doorstep.
After Ukraine routed Russian forces in the eastern Kharkiv region in September, Putin shattered that internal illusion by mobilizing army reserves, which annexed four regions and threatened to use nuclear weapons in their defense.
But this escalation has spectacularly backfired. Some 100,000 Russians have fled to Kazakhstan to avoid conscription — as many as they have joined the army — while Ukraine’s steady advance through areas Putin describes as part of Russia is undermining his own willingness to defend them Has.
The exact circumstances of the attack on the Kerch Bridge are still unclear. Russia claims a truck was full of explosives despite passing an inspection on the mainland minutes earlier, and has accused Ukraine of terrorism.
Ukrainian officials happily celebrated the blast but have not confirmed Kiev’s involvement, while suspecting Moscow’s version of events and suggesting that it may be part of the security forces’ infighting in the blame game for Russia’s failure.
The Kremlin has allowed the Russian army to face scathing public criticism in recent days from state media and some officials as they seek a scapegoat for battlefield failures.
Some of the war’s most ardent supporters have called on Putin for further escalation by destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
“We are already villains to the western world. So let’s scare them instead of making a laughing stock of them,” wrote Vladimir Soloviev, one of the most prominent commentators on Russian state television, on the social media app Telegram. “Ukraine must be thrown back into the Middle Ages. Bridges, dams, railways, power plants and other such infrastructure objects must be destroyed throughout the territory of Ukraine.”
The cause of the blast is “not as important as the outcome,” said Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv.
Russia will likely be forced to rely on the limited stockpiles of arms, ammunition and other military supplies it already has in the peninsula to supply the front lines in mainland Ukraine over the next few days or even weeks, Bielieskov said. That means it may need to be careful about how much material is spent as Ukraine’s rolling counteroffensive pushes south.
The Kremlin tried to project a sense of calm on Saturday, saying Putin had ordered an investigation into the incident but had no plans to reach out to the Russian people.
“Breaking the bridge was seen as one of the red lines that could bring about the worst-case scenario: an angry response up to and including nuclear retaliation,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik, on Telegram.
But “experience shows us that Putin always comes to react very late to military setbacks. . . and swallows them — instead of fighting back, he pretends nothing happened more often,” she added.
Within hours, authorities announced they would reopen the bridge to road and rail traffic, reassured Crimean locals that supplies of food and petrol would continue, and projected implicit assurances that Russia would open the front in the Ukraine could continue to supply as before.
And Russia’s ability to retaliate is limited by its own poor performance on the battlefield and failure to establish air superiority, O’Brien said.
“They have to do it from distant missiles because they are afraid of actually flying over Ukraine. But it just doesn’t seem accurate enough and the Ukrainians are good at intercepting so many of them that they don’t make it.”
https://www.ft.com/content/453d8aff-b8f2-42a3-919b-10a327475dfb Crimean bridge explosion exposes Russian supply lines