A pair of explosions at the Kerch Bridge around 3 AM local time on Monday resulted in a section of the bridge visibly dropping several feet, making vehicle traffic on the bridge impossible. In addition, Russian officials have reported damage to one of the bridge’s support pillars. Repairs are estimated to take at least one month. In the meantime, Russia is scrambling to reroute vehicle traffic along a land route and expand freight ferry service across the nearly 20-kilometer span of water between Russia and the Crimean peninsula.
Russia is claiming that there has been no damage to the rail line crossing the bridge, but it is unclear if that service was operating at full capacity. Trains only began crossing the bridge again in May following the earlier attack on the bridge using explosives on a fuel truck on Oct. 8, 2022. Rail traffic is currently halted as Russian engineers examine the damage to the bridge.
The attack on the bridge was reportedly carried out by the Ukrainian navy using sea drones. On Sunday, Russia filmed a naval drone cutting across the bay at Sevastopol, on the opposite side of Crimea. This drone was reportedly part of an attack that may have included as many as eight naval drones and an unknown number of flying drones. Russia reported that these drones had been destroyed, but the released videos showed only one disabled drone.
Though Russian officials have attempted to minimize reports of the damage, images from the bridge clearly show that this isn’t going to be a matter of just adjusting a few connections. Sections of the roadbed are missing and it’s likely at least one span of the bridge will need to be replaced completely.
It took over four months before the bridge was actually reopened to vehicle traffic after the earlier attack. At the moment, it doesn’t appear that this attack did as much damage as the very powerful fuel truck explosion last October. However, it’s hard to see what’s going on below the bridge span. If there is serious damage to the support pillar, repairs could be much more complex than just replacing a span of bridge.
The attack on the bridge comes as Ukraine continues to press its counteroffensive in the south. Over the weekend, Ukraine reportedly moved into parts of the villages of Staromaiorske and Pryyutne. In addition, Ukraine reportedly moved to the edge of Robotyne, with continued heavy fighting in that area.
At Pryyutne, Ukrainian forces are reportedly moving down the western edge of the town and pressing to the south. At Staromaiorske, Ukrainian forces are in the streets at the northern end of the settlement but have not yet secured the whole town. (Note that on the map, areas east of Urozhaine may not be actively under dispute. It’s just that control over this area, particularly the open fields, is unclear.)
There are reports that some Russian forces have fallen back to Staromlynivka, but take all such reports with a large grain of salt. So far Russian forces have fought to maintain every meter of ground in the south and there’s no evidence of a significant shift in that strategy.
It’s not clear how the damage to the bridge will affect Russia’s ability to supply and maintain its forces on the southern front. It’s likely that most if not all supplies to the areas now being contested come in along the coast via the M14 highway and rail lines in that area. These will not be disrupted by the bridge damage, though they will need to deal with increased traffic.
Russia is instructing civilians heading in and out of Crimea to use the land bridge, rerouting them hundreds of kilometers through the active front lines. For context, the distance of the green line in the image below between Rostov on Don to Djankoi is 635 kilometers.
The bridge damage will have a more severe effect on Russia’s ability to maintain its forces in Crimea and in the eastern portions of Kherson Oblast. However, right now the only threat to those forces is Ukraine’s small position on the east side of the Dnipro River across from Kherson. Despite an extended effort involving everything from artillery to missiles, Russia has not been able to dislodge this Ukrainian force. However, without bridges across the Dnipro to support movement of heavy equipment, Ukraine has been unable to extend this area more than a short distance from the river.
Russia says grain deal is at an end
Shortly after Ukraine’s successful attack on the bridge, Russia announced that it would not renew the deal allowing the export of Ukrainian grain under the supervision of Turkey. Cutting off the flow of grain from Ukraine could have serious implications for both grain prices and the availability of food in parts of Africa that are heavily dependent on grain from this region.
Since it was put in place last July, nearly 33 million tons of wheat and corn have been exported from Ukraine under the program. Over half the grain purchased for the U.N.’s World Food Program in 2022, and three-quarters purchased so far in 2023, came from Ukraine. U.N. officials credit the grain deal with reducing world grain prices by 20%.
The last ship to leave a Ukrainian port under the expiring deal pulled away from the port of Odesa on Sunday. Multiparty talks including officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the U.N. had been ongoing in Istanbul with hopes of extending the grain deal. Those talks now seem to have ended. China, which is the largest destination for Ukrainian grain, is eager to extend the deal and can exert its own pressure on Russia.
Last Friday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reported that he and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin were in agreement that the deal should be extended. But a Kremlin spokesperson indicated on Monday that the deal was over and would not be renewed.
While it may be easy for Russia to blame the end of the deal on the bridge attack, there have been indications for some time that Putin intended to end the deal. Last week, both U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and the International Rescue Committee wrote to Putin, warning of “catastrophic” effects if a deal was not reached. However, Putin appeared in a televised speech on Thursday evening in which he said Russia had voluntarily extended the deal “many times,” but in the end “that’s enough.”
There have been some reports that Putin was unwilling to continue the deal out of anger–not at Ukraine, but at Erdogan. In the last two weeks, Erdogan dropped opposition to Sweden joining NATO and released five Ukrainian military commanders who had been part of the defense of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol (one of whom rejoined his unit today). Russia claims their deal with Turkey required the Azovstal leaders to be held until the war was over.
Beginning last October, Turkey made a series of statements indicating that it would keep the grain deal open even if Russia decided to end it. In the last few weeks, Ukrainian Telegram channels have reported that Turkey had restated this claim to Ukraine, reassuring them that the deal would remain even without Russian support.
There have been some interpretations that this means Turkish ships would escort grain carriers through the Black Sea, challenging Russian forces to open fire on ships from a country that is part of NATO, but whether this is an accurate representation of Turkey’s promises to Ukraine or extrapolated from the few public statements last year isn’t clear.
Ukraine has already announced that it supports continuing the agreement without Russia. But since the entire agreement is simply Russia agreeing not to sink civilian shipping in exchange for the U.N. helping it to sell Russian grain and fertilizer, it’s unclear what “continuing the agreement” really means.
Fighting continues in several areas around Bakhmut. To the south of the city, Ukraine is continuing to expand its area of control around Klishchiivka. That includes a push toward Andriivka, which is the next town to the south.
A lot of what’s going on in the area right now appears to be capturing or eliminating isolated groups of Russian soldiers who continue to occupy positions in trenches or buildings. At the same time, Russian artillery continues to hit Ukrainian forces and there are numerous mines and boobytraps, making Ukraine’s advance into these positions a lot more difficult than just driving forward.
However, there are reported advances all along the area south of Bakhmut down to Kurdyumivka where Ukrainian forces have entered the town and are fighting with Russian forces.
To the northwest of Bakhmut, fighting continues around the forest and reservoir west of Berkhivka, but the bigger advance might be that moving down on Soledar from the north. Right now details are sketchy and, as with most reports in this area, videos and images are several days old. But Ukraine appears to have made good progress in this area over the weekend.
Sad Russians whose summer plans have been disrupted.
Also, you’ve been appropriately warned: