Putin’s Response to Crimea Bridge Attack Shows How Much It Hurt | Bloomberg

by UKCHP_Admin

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. 

Never mind the famous story Putin likes to tell about chasing a rat in the corridor of his Leningrad apartment. When cornered, the animal leapt out and attacked him, supposedly a life lesson on finishing a fight. Here, the Russian leader has done what, in reality, he does far more often — he’s trying to avoid getting pushed into a corner, demonstrating he still has alternatives.
He’s acted in retaliation, to silence increasingly loud voices like that of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, but also to demonstrate options, including brutal ones like strikes on civilian targets. The specific reference to the bridge blast as an act of “terrorism” is partly about diminishing it, even as state media line up to brush off the actual damage. But just as the explosions in Russian apartment blocks that led to the second Chechen war were used to attempt to legitimize brutality, Putin is attempting to justify an inhuman asymmetric response. Disturbingly, Russia has just appointed Air Force General Sergei Surovikin as commander of its invasion forces in Ukraine, a man who led Russian forces in Syria and has a reputation for ruthlessness. He quickly received an endorsement from Kadyrov, who has also since declared himself “satisfied” with the direction of events in Ukraine.

The delay also tells us, however, that Putin has been caught off guard. Having taken the politically risky decision to go for mobilization, even a partial one, he has found himself humiliated by a Ukrainian force capable of pulling off an attack that as Mick Ryan, strategist and retired major general in the Australian Army, pointed out to me, is challenging both from a security point of view and technically. And Ukraine will learn from it. Kyiv won’t make it easy for Moscow to hold on to the territories it has grabbed.
The Kremlin isn’t quite out of options yet. Tactical nuclear weapons, for all the threats, remain difficult for Moscow to deploy and would likely solve neither Putin’s political nor his strategic and military problems. But he has used other alternatives before. The emphasis on the bridge as a critical infrastructure target suggest that is where Moscow will focus. European energy infrastructure has already come under attack and more is likely to be coming. Ryan suggests retaliation could also include cyberattacks on countries supporting Ukraine and covert sabotage in areas even over the border where foreign aid is being collected. 

Yet as he points out and Russia has found, vulnerabilities go both ways.

[Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-10-10/crimean-bridge-attack-hit-putin-where-it-hurts]


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