The July 17 Kerch Strait Bridge attack is likely having immediate ramifications on Russian military logistics in southern Ukraine. Footage and imagery published on July 17 and 18 show extensive traffic jams and accidents reportedly on the E58 Mariupol-Melitopol-Kherson City highway – Russia’s current main logistics line connecting Russia to southern Ukraine – at various points between Mariupol and Berdyansk, and in Kherson Oblast. Russian occupation authorities claimed to have reduced traffic at Crimea-Kherson Oblast checkpoints near Chonhar and Armiansk following significant traffic jams in the morning. Russian occupation authorities also advertised alternate routes and rest stops along them for tourists to drive from occupied Crimea through occupied Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts – rear areas in a war zone – to return to Russia. Russian authorities also announced additional measures to mitigate resulting traffic jams and logistics issues, including a temporary road bridge next to the Kerch Strait Bridge, the reconstruction of a 60-kilometer stretch of road between Crimea and Kherson Oblast through Armiansk, and lowering security measures at the Kerch Strait Bridge checkpoints. Russian authorities reopened one span of the Kerch Strait Bridge to one-way road traffic towards Russia on July 18, and plan to reopen the same span to two-lane traffic on September 15 and the whole bridge to road traffic in November. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on July 18 that the Russian government is still developing measures to increase the security of the Kerch Strait Bridge, and Russian milbloggers continued to criticize the claimed Russian security failure to adequately protect the bridge.
Russian forces conducted a strike campaign ostensibly against Ukrainian military objects in southern Ukraine in explicit retaliation for the Kerch Strait Bridge attack. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian retaliatory strikes hit port infrastructure in Odesa City and to have destroyed Ukrainian fuel storage facilities holding a combined 70 thousand tons of fuel near Odesa and Mykolaiv cities. Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down all six Russian Kaliber missiles and 31 of 36 Shahed 131/136 drones targeting these areas, but that falling missile fragments damaged port infrastructure and a residential area in Odesa. Russian milbloggers heavily criticized the Russian MoD for only targeting Ukrainian military assets in retaliation for Ukrainian military ”provocations” rather than targeting these assets as part of the war effort. These complaints are consistent with prior milblogger criticisms to the same effect following other major military events, including the October 2022 Kerch Strait Bridge attack. The Russian MoD also accused Ukrainian forces of targeting occupied Crimea with 28 drones overnight on July 17 to 18 and claimed that Russian air defenses and electronic warfare systems downed all 28 drones.
The dismissal of former Russian 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) Commander Major General Ivan Popov and the issues he cited continue to have effects on Russian military operations in southern Ukraine and the discourse around these operations. A prominent, Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger accused Ukrainian forces of attempting to exhaust Russian forces defending in southern Ukraine and noted that the Russian military command has not solved the force rotation issues Popov outlined before his dismissal.Another prominent milblogger supported Popov, noting that the issues Popov outlined seem more important issues for the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to address than transferring Popov to Syria or other information mitigation measures. Some Russian milbloggers amplified reports of several Russian assault groups with forces of up to a platoon simultaneously surrendering to Ukrainian forces in the Zaporizhia direction. Persistent issues with Russian logistics and operations in southern Ukraine may have contributed to these forces’ inability or unwillingness to fight and reported resulting surrender.
Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive actions on at least three sectors of the frontline against the backdrop of increased Russian offensive operations and claimed tactical gains along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border on July 18. Russian and Ukrainian sources noted that Russian forces have recently increased offensive operations in the Kupyansk area (between northeastern Kharkiv Oblast and northwestern Luhansk Oblast). The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces advanced up to 2km along the front and up to 1.5km in depth in an unspecified area in the Kupyansk direction. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar and Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported that Russian forces continue to transfer reinforcements to the Bakhmut direction and are concentrating their main forces in the Kupyansk direction due to Ukrainian advances in the Bakhmut area, supporting ISW‘s assessment that Russian forces aim to draw Ukrainian reserves to the Kupyansk area and away from critical areas of the theater where Ukrainian forces are conducting counteroffensive operations. ISW continues to assess that Russian forces will not likely make tactically significant advances or an operationally significant breakthrough between northeastern Kharkiv Oblast and Luhansk Oblast in part due to the poor quality of Russian forces deployed in this area. Russian and Ukrainian sources noted that elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army (Western Military District) and convict-formed “Storm-Z” units are operating in the Kupyansk area.ISW has previously assessed that the elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army are heavily degraded and that “Storm-Z” units suffer from poor morale and discipline.
Russia continues legislative manipulations to repress domestic dissent through introducing fear of criminal liability. Russian State Duma Deputy Vasily Piskarev stated on July 18 that he and several other deputies submitted a bill for consideration to the Duma on “liability for propaganda and justification of the ideology of extremism” that will introduce a 300 thousand ruble (roughly $3,297) fine and up to five years in prison for violation of the amendment. ISW has previously reported on similar laws and amendments that are meant to set high penalties and criminal liability for anything that Russian authorities assert is “extremist” or “terroristic” behavior in order to encourage self-censorship and facilitate crackdowns against any dissenting parties. Some facets of the Russian information space expressed concern that Russian authorities could use the law to crack down against any expressed viewpoints that contradict those of the Russian state, including support for Russian opposition parties or figures.
The Telegraph concluded that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Belarusian authorities are actively involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children. The Telegraph quoted the head of the Belarusian opposition group National Anti-Crisis Management, Pavel Latushka, who alleged that Lukashenko is personally responsible for the forced displacement of Ukrainian children to Belarus and that he gave direct instructions on how to carry out and finance the displacement. The Telegraph found that Belarusian authorities actively worked with Russian authorities to transport some Ukrainian children to Belarus and othersto far eastern regions of Russia. The Telegraph reported that Belarusian and Russian authorities collaborated to forcibly transport at least 2,150 Ukrainian children to Belarus since September 2022 and that the number of Ukrainian children in Belarus will likely reach 3,000 by fall of 2023. The European Parliament Foreign Affairs Council had previously called for an arrest warrant against Lukashenko in early June for actions relating to Ukrainian children and for facilitating other crimes committed in Ukraine. ISW has long assessed that Belarus is involved in the deportation of Ukrainian children to Belarus and the Russian Federation.
- The July 17 Kerch Strait Bridge attack is likely having immediate ramifications on Russian military logistics in southern Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted a strike campaign ostensibly against Ukrainian military objects in southern Ukraine in explicit retaliation for the Kerch Strait Bridge attack.
- The dismissal of former Russian 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) Commander Major General Ivan Popov and the issues he cited continue to have effects on Russian military operations in southern Ukraine and the discourse around these operations.
- Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive actions on at least three sectors of the frontline against the backdrop of increased Russian offensive operations and claimed tactical gains along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border on July 18.
- Russia continues legislative manipulations to repress domestic dissent through introducing fear of criminal liability.
- The Telegraph concluded that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Belarusian authorities are actively involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line, southwest of Kreminna, and in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City areas and made limited territorial gains in all sectors.
- Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations around Bakhmut and advanced north of Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and reportedly made limited advances.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia oblast area and recently made limited advances in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Some Russian sources suggested that recent measures supporting the development of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) allow it to posture as an alternative Russian military formation.
- Russia continues to formalize methods of social programming targeted at youth in occupied areas of Ukraine.