In Other News – Crimean Bridge Attack Comes at a Time of Escalated Pressures on Putin – 10/13/2022

October 13, 2022

Crimean bridge attack comes at a time of escalated pressures on Putin, global players actively navigate their response. The Kerch Bridge, that was attacked in an early morning explosion last Saturday, connects illegally annexed Crimea to Russia and holds symbolic and strategic value for Moscow. In 2018, Putin personally inaugurated the bridge, comprised of both rail and road structures, to increase Russia’s ability to supply the peninsula and demonstrate that Crimea is firmly in Russia’s grasp. After the Saturday bridge attack, which appears to have been designed to maximize infrastructure damage and limit civilian deaths, Putin seemingly unleashed his fury with a series of airstrikes on Ukrainian civilian and critical infrastructure targets. It’s also possible that these strikes had been planned even before the bridge attack to help satisfy the escalatory demands of the Russian far-right. The attacks targeted locations across the whole of Ukraine and were likely led by a man with noted disregard for human life, General Sergei Surovikin.

Surovikin, who was previously in charge of Russian operations in the Ukrainian South, was recently appointed by Putin to lead the pan-Ukraine war effort. This is the first time Putin has put one individual in charge of all of Ukraine, and with Surovikin, a longtime veteran of Russia’s brutal war efforts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, civilian targets now appear fair game. Surovikin’s appointment is also in line with the same unhinged rationale of Moscow’s increased nuclear threats: Putin still seems to think that if he’s vicious enough he can convince NATO and the United States to talk Ukraine out of defending itself. But just like he underestimated Ukraine’s ability to fight back, Putin continues to underestimate Western resolve against him.

Indeed, the recent Russian attacks further galvanized the Ukrainian resistance and prompted G7 countries to reiterate, increase, and accelerate support for Ukraine, including promising air defense systems. Further, Forbes Ukraine has estimated that the attacks cost Moscow $400-700 million on just the first day- an expenditure that’s unsustainable. Russia’s political and military options also seem to be floundering – Ukraine continues to make gains in disputed territories in the South and East and many men of fighting age have fled Russia since the partial and increasingly unpopular mobilization was announced.

It’s also uncertain if the mobilization can really take effect before winter and how much of an impact it will ultimately have. The Wagner Group and Chechen fighters have refrained from committing more of their elite fighters, opting to recruit in prisons, and Russia is drawing upon more of its minority populations and foreign prisoners for cannon fodder. Training conditions for the conscripts are also reportedly awful and demoralizing. There are further reports that Russia is trying to sign on Ukrainian refugees from Mariupol, in another signal of Moscow’s desperation and an indication that there’s going to be serious a morale problem among the troops.

Putin is still attempting to weaponize food and energy, but his initial attempt to punish Europe by withholding gas was impulsive and signaled early on that the Europeans should prepare for further disruption- which they did. This week, Berlin quickly rejected Putin’s offer to resume gas supplies to Europe via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, demonstrating a firm resolve even with potentially difficult economic repercussions. It’s possible that Putin has a friendlier face with OPEC+ members like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who recently frustrated Washington by announcing production cuts, but these countries are promoting their own national economic interests and Moscow can’t reliably depend upon them in the long run.

Further, the energy reconfiguration sparked by the war continues to lead to a new political and economic reality. Just this week Israel and Lebanon accepted a US-led agreement on their contentious maritime border. The historic deal could allow natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, and both Israel and Lebanon could reap economic benefit from the resources. For its part, Israel has said that it will start extracting and exporting gas to Europe right away, and Lebanon is also expected to act quickly. Indeed, while the battle in Ukraine might be seemingly entrenched, geopolitical dealings are in full force and are likely to impact negotiating positions moving forward.