A new 11-mile bridge connects Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia has occupied since 2014, to mainland Russia.
It’s an obvious target for the Ukrainians as Russia’s wider war on Ukraine grinds into its fourth month—and the Russians know it. They’ve positioned decoy barges alongside the bridge and practiced obscuring it with smoke.
But the Ukrainian armed forces don’t yet have the means reliably to strike the $3.6-billion, steel-and-concrete bridge, which features parallel road and rail spans and supports as many as 15,000 vehicles a day.
The Ukrainians have been clear all along that the four-year-old bridge, which is also known as the Kerch Strait Bridge, is a legitimate target. Dozens of Russian battalions attacked mainland Ukraine from Crimea, after all. The Crimean Peninsula also hosts the Russian Black Sea Fleet plus air-defense batteries and fighter squadrons. The bridge helps to sustain all these forces.
“The Kerch Strait Bridge is target number one for the Ukrainian armed forces,” Ukrainian major general Dmitry Marchenko said in June. “This is not a secret either for their military or for our military. Neither for their civilians, nor for our civilians.”
“It will be the number-one target for hitting,” Marchenko added.
The Russians early in the war took steps to protect the bridge, deploying police boats on the surface and swimmers below the surface to ward off potential saboteurs. Air-defense systems on the peninsula, including S-400 missiles and Su-30 fighters, guard against air and missile attack.
The Ukrainian armed forces have not yet managed to attack the bridge. The S-400s alone could make an assault by drones, manned attack planes or helicopters prohibitively risky.
Yes, the Ukrainian army with its Mi-24 helicopters and the air force with its Su-27 fighters and TB-2 drones both have managed to mount deep strikes on Russian facilities.
The army back in April targeted a fuel depot in Belgorod, in Russia 25 miles north of the border with Ukraine. The air force starting in May bombed the Russian garrison on Snake Island, in the western Black Sea 80 miles south of Ukraine’s strategic port Odesa.
The bridge is a harder target. It’s more than 200 miles from Ukrainian territory, for one. And its tough construction makes it resistant to smaller munitions.
It could take thousands of pounds of explosives to damage the spans, to say nothing of dropping them. That’s more firepower than a few Mi-24s firing rockets, Su-27s hauling unguided bombs or TB-2s with their short-range missiles can deliver.
But Ukraine’s deep-strike capabilities are improving. And it’s apparent Russian officials are worried. On Friday, Russian army TDA-3 smoke vehicles obscured the Crimean Bridge as part of an unannounced exercise, causing at least one accident on the road span. Around the same time, people noticed Russian navy decoy barges, sporting large radar reflectors, on the water around the bridge.
The smoke could confuse drone crews and pilots and, if it contains certain chemicals, also thwart infrared-guided munitions. The barges could distract missiles fitted with radar seeker heads.
The Ukrainian army has been firing more and more of its old, Soviet-vintage Tochka ballistic missiles, targeting Russian supply hubs, oil depots and airfields as far away as 75 miles. The army’s new American-made High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers with their GPS-guided rockets meanwhile are hitting Russian ammo dumps as deep as 50 miles inside Russian territory.
To bombard the bridge, the Ukrainians must acquire new, longer-range rockets—or get closer and use existing weapons in new ways.
It’s worth noting that HIMARS is compatible with a GPS-guided, 200-mile rocket called the Army Tactical Missile System. The administration of U.S. president Joe Biden has assured the Kremlin it will not give Kyiv ATACMS or any other long-range munition that could strike deep inside Russia.
But the Russians aren’t buying it. “To trust, you need to have experience of cases where promises were kept,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Unfortunately, there is no such experience at all.”
To hold the Crimean Bridge at risk without acquiring new munitions, the Ukrainian army would need to recapture a swathe of the Ukrainian coast along the Sea of Azov east of Crimea. That means, in essence, liberating Russian-occupied Melitopol. Realistically, the Ukrainians first would need to liberate Kherson, farther west.
With a toehold on the Sea of Azov coast, the Ukrainian navy could fire some of its new foreign-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missiles at the Crimean Bridge. The Harpoon has the range to cross the Sea of Azov in order to reach the bridge and the accuracy to hit it, thanks to its radar seeker.
But the Harpoon’s 500-pound warhead is meant for sinking ships, which are much more fragile than any bridge is. If the Ukrainians reached the Sea of Azov and if they managed to deploy Harpoons in an improvisational anti-bridge role, they might need to fire more than one missile.
That’s a lot of ifs and mights. But the Russians aren’t taking chances with their priceless bridge.