In the nearly two weeks since Vladimir Putin annexed Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin, Russian forces have retreated there, closed in and defeated.
They now face a much bigger struggle to resupply their front lines after an explosion tore through a vital bridge connecting the annexed Crimea peninsula to mainland Russia early Saturday.
The attack apparently sent two spans of the Kerch Bridge into the sea and set a shipment of fuel tanks nearby on fire, blocking all traffic on the route the Russian military relies on to transport supplies. and equipment into the war zone in southern Ukraine.
It was a deeply personal humiliation for the Russian president, who ushered in a $3 billion 12-mile infrastructure link by driving a Kamaz truck through it in 2018.
Built to bolster Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014, the bridge smoldered overnight became a symbol of Russia’s struggle to counter Ukraine’s advance in the southeast.
Michael Kofman, a military analyst and director of the Russian Studies Program at CNA, a US defense think-tank, said the loss of rail links would “significantly limit our ability to move troops and supplies of Russia over Crimea, until they can fix it. it”.
The only other supply route is through the recently annexed territory of southeastern Ukraine. But the so-called “land bridge” that Russia has created by merging four regions is difficult to cross. The railway lines in between were few and far between, mostly single-track and had to be crossed by bridges over rivers and irrigation canals that flowed to Crimea, Azov and the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s missile attacks on railway infrastructure have significantly limited Russia’s ability to resupply forces across the south by land.
According to Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, Russia also lost a significant number of trucks during the invasion, making it all the more urgent to restore rail supplies.
“It would be very difficult for them to create it any other way. They really had to work hard to get that railroad back open,” said O’Brien.
The disruption could help Ukraine expand its counter-offensive and try to recapture areas it annexed from Russia, O’Brien added.
The Russians are “in real, real trouble,” he said. “The Russian military is in bad shape. The spirit is not great. The supply is not great. Currently, the Ukrainian army is really large and well trained and ready to fight. It’s hard to see how the balance is going more towards them than it is right now.”
Ukraine’s hopes of recapturing the peninsula were seen by many as a pipe dream for many years, even in Kyiv, but now seem less of a utopia as its military has gained an edge on the ground.
Although Ukraine has no credit to them, the attack on the bridge is the latest in a series of increasingly daring attacks on military infrastructure on the peninsula and elsewhere behind the Ukrainian front lines. enemy.
These have gradually eroded the Russian sense of normalcy, accompanied by Putin’s 2014 annexation and the first six months of Moscow’s “special military operation,” a term that evokes Conflict is far more in places like Syria than is the brutal reality of war for the Russians’ doorstep.
After Ukraine deployed Russian forces in the eastern Kharkiv region in September, Putin shattered that domestic illusion by mobilizing military reserves, moving towards annexation of the four regions and threatening use nuclear weapons to protect them.
But that escalation backfired spectacularly. Some 100,000 Russians fled to Kazakhstan to avoid conscription – as many have joined the army – while Ukraine’s steady advance through territories Putin claims is part of Russia has weakened its willingness to defend surname.
The exact circumstances of the Kerch Bridge attack remain unclear. Russia claimed a truck was filled with explosives, despite having passed a land inspection minutes earlier and accused Ukraine of being a terrorist.
Ukrainian officials gleefully celebrated the explosion but did not confirm Kyiv’s involvement, casting doubt on Moscow’s version of events and suggesting it could be part of an infighting by forces. in-game security blamed for Russia’s defeat.
In recent days, the Kremlin has allowed the Russian military to face public criticism in the state media and from some officials as it seeks scapegoats for defeats on the battlefield. .
Some of the war’s most fervent supporters have called on Putin to escalate further by destroying vital Ukrainian infrastructure.
“We were the villains for the Western world. So scare them instead of making fun of them,” wrote Vladimir Soloviev, one of the most popular commentators on Russia’s state television, on the social media app Telegram. “Ukraine must fall into the Dark Ages. Bridges, dams, railways, power stations and other infrastructure objects must be destroyed throughout the entire territory of Ukraine.
Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, said the cause of the explosion was “not as important as the actual result”.
According to Bielieskov, Russia will likely have to rely on the limited reserves of weapons, ammunition and other military supplies on the peninsula to supply the front in mainland Ukraine in a matter of days or even weeks. next. That means the country may need to be cautious about material spending rates as Ukraine’s rampant counter-offensive moves south.
The Kremlin tried to induce a sense of calm on Saturday, saying Mr Putin had ordered an investigation into the incident but had no plans to mention the Russian people.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consulting firm R. Politik, wrote on Telegram: “Attacking the bridge is considered one of the red lines that can lead to the worst-case scenario: backlash before and including backlash. including nuclear retaliation.
But “experience shows us that Putin always tries to react to military failures very belatedly. . . and devour them – instead of hitting back, he often pretends nothing really happened,” she added.
Within hours, authorities said they would reopen the bridge to road and rail traffic, assuring locals in Crimea that supplies of food and gasoline would resume and bring tacit assurances that Russia can still supply the front in Ukraine as before.
And Russia’s ability to retaliate is limited by poor battlefield performance and failure to establish air superiority, O’Brien said.
“They had to do it from a backup missile because they were afraid of actually flying over Ukraine. But they don’t seem to be accurate enough, and the Ukrainians are so good at intercepting them that they can’t. “