Bridges are potent political symbols, and few more so than the 19-kilometer (12-mile) link across the Kerch Strait connecting Russia with annexed Crimea, a feat of engineering riveted with strategic and propaganda significance. When he drove across it in 2018 in a bright orange truck, Russian flags fluttering, Vladimir Putin called it a miracle. It was a project, the Kremlin spokesman made a point of telling reporters, that the president himself initiated. The following year, he came back to inaugurate the rail portion, riding in the train cab for the cameras.
And yet, in the immediate aftermath of a spectacular explosion early on Saturday that badly damaged the bridge, Putin and other senior officials fell silent. Even Moscow’s loudest propagandists — like RT boss Margarita Simonyan, who initially tweeted only a single word — were reticent. Official reaction did not emerge until Sunday, with Putin labelling the explosion a “terrorist attack” in a brief comment. Then, after a start in Zaporizhzhia, air-raid alerts spread across Ukraine; Monday dawned with explosions in the heart of Kyiv.
It’s been an eloquent expression of the frustration and pressure at the top. As Putin struggles to deal with the embarrassment of the bridge attack and other military setbacks, he is also attempting to quell criticism from loud hawkish voices with a demonstration, for the home crowd and the rest, of Russia’s military might — lest anyone forget. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday described widespread retaliatory strikes on energy facilities and on civilian targets, at a time and locations “specially chosen to cause as much damage as possible.”
Kyiv hasn’t explicitly claimed responsibility for the Kerch fireball, but did pointedly issue commemorative stamps, while the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council tweeted footage of the blast alongside Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”
More than a personal blow at Putin, the bridge attack is a strategic and security failure, given how obvious the bridge was as a target, and how emphatically Russian media had reported on the multilayered protection supposedly in place. Even the infamous trained dolphins, a promised protective “dome” and anti-sabotage boats were unable to stop the disruption of a crucial supply line for the armed forces. And it is, as Kyiv has put it, just the beginning — a reminder of just how hard it will be for Moscow to hold the land it has grabbed.
So where was Putin over much of the weekend? Back in July, after all, former president and super-hawk Dmitry Medvedev had threatened a “Judgment Day” response to any attack on Crimea; this is not even the first — an airbase was badly damaged during an attack over the summer.
Silence has long been Putin’s stock reaction to situations he feels are getting out of hand, when a supposedly all-powerful patriarch is unable to find an obvious fix, and stumbles. After the Kursk submarine sank in the first year of his presidency, he went mute for days. Two decades later, when Covid-19 began sweeping through Russia, he also largely vanished from public view — hiding from the virus and from blame for any mistakes. And here we are again.