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Why Crimea’s Kerch Bridge is a big deal in Russia’s war in Ukraine

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The Kerch Bridge connecting Russia to the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea once again came under attack early Monday, causing disruptions to a key supply route for Moscow’s military as Ukraine wages a crucial counteroffensive. 

The strike bore similarities to an attack in October, but there were key differences — notably that Ukraine took responsibility this time. 

The previous collapse reportedly occurred when a truck bomb exploded and ignited several fuel tanks in a passing train. Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation said Monday’s attack was carried out using “naval drones.”

This week’s attack was deadly, reportedly killing two parents and injuring their daughter. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to respond to the “senseless attack,” while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Moscow was pulling out of a deal to allow exports of grain via the Black Sea. 

The United States accused Putin of weaponizing global hunger, while the United Nations said Russia’s decision would “strike a blow to people in need everywhere.”

Why the Kerch Bridge is important to Russia

This image provided by Maxar Technologies, shows the Crimean Bridge connecting Russian mainland and Crimean peninsula over the Kerch Strait not far from Kerch, Crimea on Monday, July 17, 2023. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP)

The Kerch Bridge is important militarily, but also deeply symbolic for Putin, who oversaw the illegal invasion and occupation of Crimea almost a decade ago. 

Putin announced his plans to build the 12-mile, road-and-rail bridge soon after he seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and Putin himself personally inaugurated the bridge when it opened in 2018, driving across in an orange dump truck. 

The bridge is widely disliked by Ukrainians, who view it as a symbol of Russian occupation.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, did not explicitly claim responsibility for Monday’s attack, but said it was necessary to take out the bridge. 

“Any illegal structures used to deliver Russian instruments of mass murder are necessarily short-lived,” he said. 

Video of the bridge shows both lanes badly damaged, with at least one section of the bridge nearly falling into the water below. 

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said Monday that road traffic would resume in one direction by Sept. 15, and that the bridge would be completely repaired by Nov. 1. 

The bridge is a key supply line between Russia and its forces based in Crimea, along with southern provinces such as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which are on the front lines of the war. 

Russia has also built a “land bridge” as an alternate crossing, but it is more difficult and dangerous. 

Putin responds to latest attack

Putin claimed the “terrorist act” would not set back Russia’s war effort. 

“There will be a response from Russia to the terrorist attack on the Crimean bridge. The Ministry of Defense is preparing relevant proposals,” he said during a meeting with officials.

The bridge is also a key component of many Russians’ summer vacation plans, as it provides easy passage to the popular coastal resorts in Crimea — meaning tens of thousands of Russians are now effectively stranded on the peninsula. 

Russia’s government said that it will relax border checks along alternative routes in occupied southern Ukraine to help them get home, per the Wall Street Journal. Commercial flights to and from Crimea have been halted following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Naval drones play significant role for Ukraine

In this handout photo taken from video released by Investigative Committee of Russia, investigators work at an automobile link of the Crimean Bridge connecting Russian mainland and Crimean peninsula over the Kerch Strait. (Investigative Committee of Russia via AP)

The use of naval drones in the attack is also significant, as the weapons have been a focus of Ukraine’s military in countering Russia’s far superior navy. 

In October, 16 of the “kamikaze” naval drones assaulted Russia’s Black Sea fleet, damaging its new flagship. 

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Popular Mechanics noted that whichever vessels were used in the bridge attack would have needed to carry a large payload and navigate through Russian patrol boats and helicopters — and may have avoided radar by staying underwater. 

“The reality is that Ukraine is constantly imposing high costs on the Russian Navy by launching small, cheap [unmanned surface vessels] against ships and port facilities,” Samuel Bendett, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said on Twitter

“Defending against such attacks means constant state of awareness and high-levels of stress.”

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