The Crimean bridge explosion accelerates the strategic choices Russian President Vladimir Putin must make about Russia’s occupation of southern Ukraine.
This entire presence was already poorly supplied, managed and in retreat. Rickety ferry crossings in bad weather or highly dangerous air cargo flights may now be needed to bolster military shipments into Crimea and toward the frontlines.
Ukraine has been targeting Russia’ aging transport dependencies — particularly its reliance on rail — with slow, patient accuracy. First Izium, which led to the collapse around Kharkiv. Then Lyman, which is leading to the erosion of Russia’s control of Donetsk and Luhansk. And now the Kerch Strait Bridge, which had become so vital to everything that Russia is trying to hold on to in the south.
Putin now faces a series of expedited and painful decisions, all of which will severely belie his continued poker-face of pride and bombast toward the gathering signs of slow defeat.
To the west of the Dnieper river, his army in Kherson is besieged by fast-moving Ukrainian forces. Putin’s troops are already in retreat, partially owing to the same poor resupply that will be accentuated by the Kerch blast.
They are again cut off from this faltering supply line by another series of damaged or targeted bridges across the Dnieper. Over the past week, they have already fallen back over 500 square kilometers (about 193 square miles).
Can Moscow sustain this force over two damaged supply routes? A precarious presence has perhaps overnight become near-impossible.
The second point of decision relates to Crimea. Putin now faces the difficult choice of fortifying it further with depleted forces who face resupply issues, or partially withdrawing his military to ensure their significant resources on the peninsula do not get cut off.
Putin must choose between feeding his larger ambitions with a dwindling chance of success or consolidating forces around an objective he has a greater chance of achieving.
One carries the risk of catastrophic collapse, for his entire brutal adventure into Ukraine — and quite possibly, his rule. The second leaves him with an immediate loss of face, but a stronger chance of sustaining the occupation of smaller parts of Ukraine.