On Saturday, the Ukrainians hit the Kerch Strait Bridge, which leads from Russia to Crimea, with something—a missile, explosives planted by naval commandos, a truck laden with explosives. No one who knows is saying for sure. As is the way of military commentary in 2022, experts—real, fake, self-proclaimed—are studying the imagery floating around Twitter and insisting that they know just what happened. Those pictures show a two-lane span dropped into the water, an adjacent pair of lanes still standing, and, on a parallel rail bridge, a train hauling tanker cars that are burning fiercely. The Russians have already run a new train across the rail bridge, but no one knows whether there was anything in it, to serve as a real test of whether the span can still bear the weight of a full load, or whether it was simply intended to create the illusion of normalcy—the creator of Potemkin villages for Catherine the Great was, after all, a Russian general.
The tactical questions of how the Ukrainians pulled off this strike and of whether lasting damage has occurred are interesting and important but currently unresolvable publicly. What can, however, be more profitably discussed is what this tells us about where the Russia-Ukraine war is headed.
“Battles are the principal milestones of secular history,” Winston Churchill wrote in his biography of the Duke of Marlborough. The strike on the Kerch Strait Bridge was not a battle, but it was an important contributor to one of the great inflection points of this war—the moment when Russian elites began to understand that they are losing. The retreat of Russian forces from Kyiv in the early spring could be awkwardly explained as an unreciprocated gesture of goodwill. It did not involve a rout. The Ukrainian counteroffensive that liberated the Kharkiv region was a more difficult-to-swallow “repositioning” accompanied, however, by video images of the surrender and slaughter of retreating troops. Both could be understood as the result of poor decisions by military leaders who could be sacked and replaced.
The Kerch Strait Bridge attack, by contrast, inflicted at most a couple of casualties but packed multiple punches. It struck a prime symbol of the project of Russian imperial restoration, an expensive structure designed to link a Crimea reincorporated into Russia with the motherland. It damaged a crucial supply route. It showed that Ukraine could reach deep behind Russian lines to hit, with exquisite precision, a key and extremely well-defended target. It was, above all, a personal as well as a national humiliation: This was Vladimir Putin’s pet construction project, and it was the most unwelcome gift possible on his 70th birthday.
Russia’s military predicament is going from bad to worse. Occupying a thousand-kilometer front and reliant on massed firepower, the Russian military depends on creaking supply lines that run parallel to the front and that are increasingly vulnerable to Ukrainian precision attacks. The one exception—the route through Crimea—just received a dramatic blow.
Meanwhile, Russia’s military mobilization is a deeply unpopular botch, as more Russian men flee the country than can be inducted into an army that cannot equip them, cannot train them, and cannot lead them. The Russian military faces threats from a Ukrainian army that can strike in the east (Donbas), the south (Kherson), or even possibly the southeast (Melitopol) wherever it sees the chance. That Ukrainian army is far better led, increasingly better equipped, and better informed thanks to Western support, and has infinitely higher morale.
More disasters await. Ten thousand to 20,000 of Russia’s best remaining troops are bottled up in the city of Kherson, their backs against the Dnipro River and the bridges behind them unusable for heavy traffic.
The Kerch Strait Bridge attack’s most important consequence, however, will be to accelerate the transformations within Russia’s political and military leadership already under way. For the first time, the war in Ukraine has a single military commander, General Sergey Surovikin. Unity of command is one of those military principles most often observed in the breach, but the fractured command and control of the Russian invasion, which at one point had more than half a dozen separate commands, was egregious.
Surovikin—his face set in the menacing scowl of most Russian generals—will not be able to create a unified command organization overnight. Nor is he likely to escape the micromanagement from the Kremlin that seems to have plagued Russia’s war effort. What he will do, however, is repeat the brutalities over which he presided in Syria, where the Russian military gained experience not in fighting but in butchering civilians. Small wonder that the immediate Russian response to the bridge attack was a volley of missiles aimed at civilian apartment buildings in Zaporizhzhia.
Until now, the Russian high command has consisted of the docile, if corrupt, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the gnomelike Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. There was no danger of either becoming a popular figure. Putin may now face the unappetizing choice between picking a more effective, colorful, and (on the nationalist right) popular set of subordinates who could turn on him, or sticking with the loyal but failed mediocrities who have absorbed the obloquy associated with Putin’s system and the president himself.
Dictatorships built solely on fear and self-interest are brittle things, and in Russia the cracks are showing. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the criminal head of the Wagner Group of mercenaries that does the Kremlin’s bidding, and Ramzan Kadyrov, the no-less-thuggish ruler of Chechnya, have created private armies. They have been open in their view that some generals should be not only cashiered but shot, a stance echoed by the head of the Russian propaganda outlet, RT, Margarita Simonyan. They may very well be preparing the way for their own bids for power. Other armed organizations—the FSB secret police, the GRU (military intelligence), the national guard, and the army itself—might be willing to engage in violence at home and not just abroad. Sooner or later, violent words casually bandied about lead to violent deeds.
Running throughout the open conduits of opinion, primarily on Telegram, is boiling discontent with the military, the conduct of this war, the absurd insistence that it is not a war but a “special technical operation,” the incompetent mobilization, and, by implication, Putin himself. Paranoid by professional training and personal inclination, Putin must now look within as much as he looks without. At the same time, Russian paranoia about the West, a combination of grievance and thwarted desires to restore an imperial state, has created an atmosphere in which measured policy is impossible.
All of this suggests that predictions of stalemate are wrong, at least so far as the higher conduct of this war is concerned. The impulse of General Surovikin will be to destroy civilians, power plants, and hospitals, because he cannot beat the Ukrainian army. He will probably press harder for the use of chemical weapons, and possibly nuclear ones as well. The infighting of the Russian elite can only worsen, and internally directed violence will, at some point, ensue.
Nor will the battlefield stand still. A few more good strikes on the Kerch Strait Bridge and it will become virtually unusable. A tenuous Russian logistical system will come under greater and possibly unsustainable strain during bad weather, which may slow, but will not stop, Ukrainian attacks. A much larger psychological disaster for Russia will ensue if and when Kherson falls and the largest city that Russia has taken is lost to Ukraine, together with thousands of Russian prisoners. That would be the real inflection point, a great battle, and as Churchill also put it: “Great battles, won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres, in armies and in nations, to which all must conform.”
The Kerch Strait Bridge attack was an awful birthday present for Vladimir Putin. Almost as awful however, was the missing birthday card from China’s Xi Jinping, a symbolic distancing particularly significant in the sorts of systems ruling both countries. Russia is isolated from its neighbors, who are either openly hostile or walking away from its Ukraine enterprise. It is only one more way in which Russian prospects will continue to darken during a winter of destruction and death in Eurasia. A difficult season awaits, lightened only by the heroism and competence of Ukraine, and by the wisdom of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who, when asked by a reporter about an off-ramp for Vladimir Putin, responded succinctly “For Russia to leave Ukraine” and walked off, the ghost of a grim smile on her face.