Blowing up the Kerch bridge is certainly a coup for the Ukrainian army. The bridge is the main rail and road link between Crimea and Russia. At the moment this is especially important because Russia’s battle at Kherson is being logistically supported from Crimea. Damaging the bridge will slow Russia’s ability to resupply its forces in and around Kherson. In addition, this operation demonstrates a very high level of technical capability.
Damaging a bridge of this size is not easy. The bridges are concrete, reinforced with steel so if explosive charges are simply placed on the bridge; the explosion will take the path of least resistance around the structure, making a loud noise but doing little damage. Therefore, explosives must be precisely placed so that their explosion is directed to cut and damage key structural components. Footage shows a section of the bridge collapsed, meaning the attack was carried out with some precision. Carrying out this attack against a heavily guarded and well-defended bridge demonstrates a high level of planning and sophistication.
The military effects of this attack are significant, but the real intent of the attack is psychological. This attack is deliberately provocative as the Kerch Bridge was built after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. It was opened by Putin himself in 2018, demonstrating an enduring physical connection between the Ukraine and Russia. Crimea is a popular holiday destination in Russia with around 50,000 holidaymakers in the region at present. It is a personal blow to Putin, destroying the infrastructure he values and demonstrating that he cannot guarantee the safety of his people in Crimea.
Moreover, this attack coincides with President Biden discussing his concerns about nuclear escalation. At a donor event this week, he made a statement that “this war brings the world closer to nuclear Armageddon than anything since the Cuban Missile Crisis”. The President’s speech has caused great concern internationally and should be interpreted with caution. It was not an official statement. Instead, it was made at an event for major Democratic Party donors and there is no footage or transcript of it; only second-hand reports. This means that the context of his words is open to interpretation, leaving open a range of possible options, including:
- President Biden is very worried and preparing the United States, NATO and the world for the prospect of impending catastrophe; Where
- President sends coded message to Putin that US understands threat and is preparing for it; Where
- In a relatively informal environment, President Biden pondered the dangers of the current situation.
It is difficult to interpret this speech and it seems very likely that the statement is a mixture of all three. Clearly, the world is far from the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis. During this period, Russia and the United States mobilized their strategic nuclear forces. The United States had much of its nuclear bomber force armed and in the air 24 hours a day, ready to attack. Russian ships have been intercepted and boarded en route to Cuba by the US Navy. The superpowers were aggressively stepping up their nuclear preparedness and there was an imminent prospect of Soviet and American military units clashing and starting a war.
President Biden was a young man in 1962 and probably clearly remembers the tension and fear, something his post-Cold War generation hoped would never be experienced again. Although the war in Ukraine is not at this level of tension, Putin’s behavior certainly raises fears that the world is moving closer to a nuclear war. This situation is on everyone’s mind and the President of the United States is in a position of considerable responsibility and it seems likely that President Biden will be transparent about his concerns.
However, we know that the US and NATO are watching Russia’s nuclear arsenal like hawks; and that at this time no change in posture is detected. We also know that since the announcement of the annexation by Russia, the Ukrainian forces continue to advance in the annexed regions. The areas that Putin said Russia will defend with “all meanswhich has not yet prompted any escalation or threats of nuclear response. So at this point, although the evidence indicates that a nuclear escalation is unlikely, President Biden probably thought it made sense to remind people, including Putin, of the dangerous game that is being played.
A recent interpretation of Putin’s recent statements by Emily Ferris of the Royal United Services Institute may add a layer of nuance to this discussion, in a comment on October 4 her analysis was that Putin was signaling that he wanted to end the current conflict. . In the article Ferris observes that “If in his mobilization speech a few days earlier, Putin launched thinly veiled threats – which must nevertheless be taken seriously – about his desire to use nuclear force, within a few hours Peskov (Putin’s media spokesman) sought to allay concerns, saying Russia did not want to amplify this message and calling for responsible behavior by all”. She argues that Putin is under pressure from his allies to defuse, that “Pressure from President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – with whom important political and economic relations are at stake – is likely to have more influence on Putin’s overall strategy for war than his entourage or reports of his generals”. Furthermore, she noted that Putin had offered peace negotiations in return for Ukrainian withdrawal from annexed territories. However, Ferris ended his commentary by noting that Putin defined the Ukraine war in terms of the larger conflict between “the West” and “the anti-West.”
An interesting analysis as it provides logic and justification for Putin’s current action and a potential picture of his broader strategy. Essentially, this use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons would harm its relationship with potential future allies. Russia’s position as the leader of the anti-West has been seriously undermined by the failure of the Russian military and if it wants to maintain a position of global influence it must withdraw from the war. Thus, the only strategy available is to hang on until an “exit ramp” presents itself that allows Putin to claim victory and retain power in Russia.
This strategy is likely to be supported by the majority of Putin’s Russian elite because they understand the situation Russia finds itself in; and that if they actually use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, they will lose everything. Ukrainians, on the other hand, see this momentum building and know that if Putin and his ultra-nationalist supporters survive, Russia will continue to be a threat to their nation. If Putin’s regime survives the war, then there is the possibility that by working with its allies, Russia will be able to rebuild its military and Ukraine will at some future date face further aggression.
Therefore, it is in their interest to act aggressively now and force a decision; escalate Putin; destroy Russia in the process. Or force Putin to back down, causing his political demise. The Kerch Bridge attack is an example of Ukraine ignoring Putin’s threats and “raising the bar” to put pressure on Putin. Essentially, Ukraine is denouncing Putin’s bluff regarding the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Ukraine’s goal is to drive as hard and fast as possible, keeping Putin on “the back foot”. In this position he is a “loser” and cannot generate the internal support within the Russian military that he needs for a nuclear escalation nor do his international allies have the confidence in him to support it. . And, the best way to keep Putin “on his back” is to keep winning battles that reclaim territory and already the pressure is mounting on Kherson. This battle is important because the Russians are trapped and a hasty withdrawal is not possible, so when the battle is lost, a large number of Russian soldiers will fall into the hands of the Ukrainians. A major propaganda victory, which to date has eluded the Ukrainians as the Russians retreated quickly enough to avoid capture. When the film of thousands of Russian prisoners scrolls en masse in captivity is shown to be politically very damaging to Putin.
Therefore, the next few weeks will continue to be interesting. The Russian military in Ukraine is collapsing and it is unlikely to recover. The Ukrainians were closing in on Kherson and the possibility of a third axis of advance opening to the south, perhaps a push towards Mariupol or an offensive pushing south from Zaporizhia became more likely. Cutting the Kerch bridge could even be the prelude to a new offensive. The Ukrainians are pushing the “bet” higher and higher. Eventually, Putin will run out of options and either have to test escalation; or come to the bargaining table. The question in the coming weeks is whether Ukraine’s likely strategic goal of destroying Putin’s regime aligns with its supporters? If Putin identifies an “exit ramp” that could end the war, but allow him to retain power, will the US and NATO continue to support Ukraine? It is also important that supporters of Ukraine understand and accept the risks of Ukrainian strategy. So in the weeks to come, Ukraine, NATO and the United States will have to synchronize their strategic objectives so that they can begin to plan in detail the end of this war.
Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.