July 17, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Assault on Kerch Strait bridge will slow Russian war logistics for months to come

Institute for the Study of War

The July 17 attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge will likely have continuing ramifications on Russian logistics in southern Ukraine. Russian authorities accused Ukrainian special services of conducting an unmanned surface vehicle strike against the Kerch Strait Bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea on the morning of July 17. Footage of the aftermath shows that one Kerch Strait Bridge road span had collapsed and another span suffered damage but remains intact. The Russian Ministry of Transport claimed that the strikes did not damage the rail bridge or supports of the road bridge, and rail traffic across the Kerch Strait Bridge resumed several hours after the strike. Russian occupation authorities rerouted heavy civilian traffic from occupied Crimea to Russia through occupied southern Ukraine, and Russian sources reported extensive traffic jams in Crimea’s Dzhankoy Raion and occupied Kherson Oblast towards Melitopol. Russian tourists fleeing occupied Crimea likely exacerbated traffic and likely impeded Russian logistics from Crimea to rear areas in Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts. Occupation authorities asked civilians to consider alternate evacuation routes to mitigate the immediate traffic issues. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andrii Yusov declined to comment on Ukrainian involvement in the incident. The Kerch Strait Bridge and military areas in occupied Crimea are legitimate military targets for Ukrainian forces in their defense against the full-scale Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine, as ISW and Ukrainian officials have previously reported.

The Russian government’s continued failure to put Russian society on a war-time footing will have significant impacts on Russian logistics as traffic from Russian tourism to occupied Crimea jams Russian logistics to southern Ukraine in the midst of the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south. The Kerch Strait Bridge is along one of two ground lines of communication (GLOCs) supporting Russia’s southern force grouping, with the other route passing through occupied Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson Oblasts. This sole remaining logistics route is now a single point of failure for the supply of the large numbers of mechanized Russian forces in southern Ukraine needed to resist Ukrainian counteroffensives. Russian and occupation officials have nevertheless continued to promote occupied Crimea as a tourist destination, however, urging Russian civilians to drive through and to a warzone rather than advising them to avoid it as a responsible government would. Russian occupation authorities recently struggled to mitigate traffic issues just from increased Russian tourism across the Kerch Strait Bridge, as ISW has previously reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin even ordered the use of Russian military assets to ferry tourists across the Kerch Strait. Some Russian milbloggers also suggested that the attack against the Kerch Strait Bridge should not reduce continued tourist flows.

Russian logistics to southern Ukraine will likely suffer in the short and medium-term, likely exacerbating recent and significant complaints about inadequate Russian supplies in southern Ukraine. Former Russian 58th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District) Commander Major General Ivan Popov’s recent complaints about the Russian military command’s mistreatment of Russian forces defending against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine sparked great ire in the Russian information space. Many of Popov’s complaints indicated that the 58th Combined Arms Army, and likely other Russian formations deployed in Zaporizhia Oblast, suffer from supply shortages that will further worsen if tourist and other civilian traffic slow down logistics routes supporting Russian forces in southern Ukraine. Further issues with support for this grouping, and further resulting complaints that emerge in the Russian information space, are likely to draw further outrage from the Russian ultranationalist community and undermine confidence in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).

Key Takeaways:

  • The July 17 attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge will likely have significant and sustained impacts on Russian logistics as traffic from tourism to occupied Crimea jams Russian logistics to southern Ukraine in the midst of the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south.
  • Russian and occupation authorities appear to be consumed with mitigating the consequences of the attack rather than leveraging the incident to levy heavy informational attacks with rhetorical inflections.
  • The Russian milblogger response to the Kerch Strait Bridge attack largely criticized Russian authorities for failing to secure the bridge.
  • The Wagner Group continues to prepare to establish a permanent presence in Belarus.
  • Russia continues efforts to reorganize its domestic security apparatus in the wake of the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front over the backdrop of increased Russian offensive operations along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border on July 17.
  • Russian forces conducted active offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line and have likely made marginal tactical gains in this direction.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks southwest and south of Kreminna, around Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut area and advanced near the Donetsk-Zaporizhia administrative border.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued unsuccessful ground attacks in the Orikhiv area in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported that Russian authorities have removed at least eight Russian military commanders without reappointing them to new positions since the start of the war, which is largely consistent with ISW’s previous assessments.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to artificially increase the number of Russian citizens in occupied Ukraine ahead of the September regional elections.
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