Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 17 July 2023. © Richard Kemp
With the counteroffensive in its sixth week, still moving slowly and at considerable cost but without any significant territorial gains so far, Ukraine was in need of a tangible success. That was delivered in last night’s dramatic attack against the Kerch Bridge, the longest in Europe and a major symbol of Putin’s power.
The crossing is one of the most heavily guarded objects under Russian control anywhere, beefed up after it was damaged last year, apparently by a vehicle bomb. Hitting a bridge protected by land, sea and air is a notoriously difficult military feat, even in the era of precision strike. Yet Ukrainian forces have demonstrated they have that capability, reportedly attacking this time with naval drones. The strike makes it clear that there is no safe place for important Russian targets in occupied Ukraine, even far from the front lines.
The Kerch hit was much more than just symbolic. The bridge is an important logistic artery for Russia, delivering troops and combat supplies into Crimea and so to the front lines in mainland Ukraine. Only the roadway seems to have been damaged in this attack. But this strike has shown that the railway spans, which carry the greater volume of combat supplies, are also highly vulnerable, and cutting the road will have had a measurable effect on Russian supply lines.
The only other ground route from Russia to the primary southern battle zone is via the ‘land bridge’ along the north coast of the Sea of Azov that was seized in the early months of the war. Supply lines through this corridor have also been attacked by Ukraine, but there are severe limitations. GMLRS missiles (usually fired from the Himars vehicle) cannot cover the whole land bridge. The Ukrainians have only small stocks of Storm Shadow cruise missiles with their greater range.
Hitting Russian logistics hard is vital to Ukraine’s counteroffensive as it reduces Russia’s combat power on the defensive lines that must be breached if success is to be achieved.
But the Kerch Bridge strike is also a blow to Russian troop morale at a critical time. There is already severe discontent in the ranks, going right up to top level operational commanders. The deputy chief of the entire campaign, General Sergei Surovikin, has not been seen since the Wagner mercenaries’ abortive coup at the end of June. General Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army, was dismissed last week after he accused top brass of stabbing Russian forces in the back, complaining about the deaths of his soldiers from Ukrainian artillery and a lack of effective counter battery fire. Further distinct cracks in Russian military cohesion may be about to open, with reports of dismissals and even arrests of other senior officers for similar reasons. Already rattled troops can only have their morale and fighting spirit further eroded by threats to their lines of supply and reinforcement such as the Kerch Bridge, which would be the only possible way back to Russia for many of them in the event of a major Ukrainian penetration.
In the end, long range precision strike against supply depots and headquarters is no substitute for massed infantry, tanks, guns and planes to achieve breakthrough, but with Ukrainian forces fighting outnumbered against strong defences, it can undoubtedly tip the scales. Kyiv is already fighting with one hand tied behind its back, with donor nations banning the use of their weapons against launch sites, ammo dumps and troop concentrations on Russian territory from which Ukraine can nevertheless be attacked with impunity.
With their continued paranoia over escalation, to expect Nato countries to drop these constraints now is perhaps a stretch. But the US administration urgently needs to get over its long standing aversion to supplying the Army Tactical Missile System, the ATACMS, which can be fired from Himars vehicles instead of GMLRS. ATACMS missiles are much more powerful and have a range of 190 miles, which would redouble Ukraine’s ability to strike targets deep behind enemy lines.
Image: Wikimedia Commons