Ukraine's surprise attack on Putin's 'miracle' bridge is more than just a military loss for Russia

·5 min read
Russia Crimea Kerch bridge explosion fire smoke
Smoke and flames rise from the bridge between Crimea and Russia after an explosion on October 8.AFP via Getty Images
  • The bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula was hit by a surprise attack on October 8.

  • The bridge is damaged but still standing, though the attackers also likely sought psychological impact.

  • Putin touted the bridge when it was built, and the attack on it comes after others in Crimea itself.

At dawn on October 8, an explosion shook the bridge between mainland Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

The blast caused a westbound span of the road bridge to collapse into the Kerch Strait and damaged an eastbound span and the adjacent rail bridge.

Ukraine had previously threatened the bridge but hasn't officially claimed responsibility, though Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Kyiv and called it a "terrorist attack."

Following the blast, road and rail movement on the bridge, which had seen increased civilian traffic following Ukrainian attacks on Russian bases in Crimea in August, was limited, with heavier trucks crossing by boat instead.

Bridge over troubled water

Workers restore the railway tracks on the Kerch bridge that links Crimea to Russia, near Kerch, on October 9, 2022, a day after it was damaged by a blast.
The Crimean bridge on October 9.Contributor/AFP via Getty Images

The Crimean bridge is very important to the Russian war effort in Ukraine. It is the shortest land route from Russia to Crimea, and Russian forces used it to transport large amounts of equipment before and after the attack began in late February.

The peninsula is also home to important military infrastructure. It hosts Russia's Black Sea Fleet and numerous military airports and bases. Crimea is critical for operational and logistical support of Russia's southern front in Ukraine, where its troops are having setbacks in Kherson.

As a result of the attack, Russian supply lines through Crimea are "degraded" and logistical issues on Russia's southern front are likely "more acute," the British Ministry of Defense said this month.

To compensate for reduced bridge traffic, Russia now has to transport troops, equipment, and supplies across the Kerch Strait by boat or reroute them through the occupied provinces of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk in southern Ukraine, which takes much longer.

Vehicles wait to cross Russian Crimea bridge near Kerch
Vehicles wait to cross the Crimean bridge on October 9.ANNA KARPENKO/AFP via Getty Images

A "large queue of cargo trucks" has been observed on the Russian side of the strait and Russian forces "are likely increasing logistical supply flow" through Mariupol in Donetsk, the Ministry of Defense said in an October 17 update.

Limited damage to the rail portion of the bridge means traffic there may soon pick up, the Institute for the Study of War said in an assessment after the attack.

Watch: British intelligence says Russia's military leadership has only become 'increasingly dysfunctional'

However, the bridge has likely suffered structural damage and may be weaker, requiring reductions in the weight and frequency of rail traffic, according to Colin Caprani and Sam Rigby, experts in bridge safety and blast engineering.

Russian officials have said little about the impact of the blast, but a government decree signed this month orders repairs to be completed by July 1, 2023, which may be an indication of the extent of the damage.

Happy birthday, Mr. president

People pose for photos and take selfies in front of the large poster form of postage stamp depicting the Crimean Kerch Bridge on fire in Kyiv, Ukraine, October 08, 2022.
Ukrainians pose with a mock postage stamp depicting the Crimean Bridge on fire on October 8.Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While the military impact of the attack may be limited, that was not the only goal.

"The attack on the Crimean bridge was partially intended as a message," Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told Insider.

The 12-mile bridge is the longest in Europe and was lauded by Russian media as a major achievement.

"This is a truly historic day," Putin said at a ceremony for the opening of the bridge's road section in 2018. Russian leaders had sought to build such a bridge for decades, Putin said, adding that "this miracle has come true."

The attack also took place a day after Putin's 70th birthday.

"Because Putin is personally associated with the seizure of Crimea, any attack on the peninsula is a blow to his signature accomplishment," said Miller, who is also director for Eurasia at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Vladimir Putin Crimea Kerch bridge
Putin inspects the completed road section of the Crimean Bridge on March 14, 2018.Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via Reuters

"The Ukrainians want to delegitimize Russian control over Crimea and to show that Russia's hold on the peninsula is weaker than it appears," and Russians clearly realize today that their control over the occupied peninsula is threatened "in a way it hasn't been since 2014," Miller told Insider.

Following the attacks in August, Russians, many of them vacationers, scrambled to leave Crimea, with reports of 38,000 cars departing in one day.

This week, Putin declared "medium readiness" in territories adjacent to Ukraine, likely setting the stage for more measures to support the war effort. But the Kremlin's handling of the war has eroded domestic support, and the latest attack on Crimea may further tarnish Putin's reputation.

"The war in general has substantially dented Russians' trust in Putin's abilities as president," Miller said.

"Competence and stability used to be the way that Putin justified his repressive rule at home," Miller added. "Now he is incompetently waging war in a way that has destabilized Russia."

Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can contact him on LinkedIn.

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