On July 4, it was revealed that Russia had moved countermeasures to the strategic Kerch bridge that connects mainland Russia with Crimea. The move was believed to be a Russian attempt at safeguarding the strategic bridge that could come under Ukrainian attack.
The Kerch bridge, completed in 2018, is a strategic logistic route that houses both roads and rail links. Stretching over sixteen kilometers, Kerch is the longest bridge in Europe and was constructed after Russia annexed Crimea. Putin himself drove a truck to inaugurate the $3.7 billion bridge.
Russia has thus deployed decoy barges covered in radar reflectors as well as smokescreen capabilities to defend the critical bridge connecting Russia with Crimea.
The most recent changes seem to be shielding the bridge from a standoff missile attack. The Russian fears are not unfounded as the US officials have indicated that Ukraine could strike the bridge from its sovereign territory that it has been defending from Russia.
A US official told US media that Russian forces’ capabilities and logistics hubs within Ukraine are acceptable targets when asked whether there were any restrictions on the employment of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, in Ukraine against specific targets.
Earlier, a former NATO commander suggested the Ukrainian army could attack the strategic Kerch bridge. General Philip Breedlove, termed the Kerch Strait bridge critical for Moscow as it would use it to deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine.
Breedlove said: “Kerch bridge is a legitimate target. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that the Russians are concerned about the Kerch bridge. It’s incredibly important to them. “Now that the West has given Ukraine [sub-sonic, sea-skimming cruise] Harpoon missiles [with a range of up 200 miles] I think the Russians have every reason to be worried about Ukraine launching an attack on the bridge.
These statements come even as Putin had warned in June that Moscow would start hitting new targets if the US and UK continued to arm Ukraine with lethal, precision-guided long-range missiles. These warnings, however, have mostly gone unheeded and Kiev has received HIMARS and Harpoons systems from its western partners.
It is pertinent to mention that the US does not recognize Crimea as Russian territory. However, Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, remains out of bounds for the Ukrainian troops.
Any attack on the Kerch bridge would thus take place from the Ukrainian territory and as aspirational as it sounds, the Ukrainian troops currently lack a precision-guided missile of a range that could destroy the strategic Russian bridge.
While the US has armed Ukraine with HIMARS, which now brings the number of these systems to 12, it has stopped short of sending longer-range rockets for fear of escalation with Russia.
The Ukrainian troops had attacked the Russians and made them withdraw from Snake Island using the Harpoon missiles. However, even these are mostly incapable of blowing the Kerch bridge from deep inside Ukrainian territory. However, Russia, on its part is preparing for all eventualities after suffering a setback on Snake Island.
Russia’s Defense Of Kerch Bridge
Two target barges from the Novorossiysk Naval Base were brought to the area and moored on the east side of the bridge, revealed independent defense expert H.I. Sutton on Twitter. Several radar reflectors, metallic objects attached to a barge to increase its visibility to radar, were also present aboard the vessels, he added.
Sutton referred to the ships as “target barges” because it is known that the Russian Navy used these ships as targets during drills with the Black Sea Fleet. Now, it appears that their primary objective may be to serve as a ruse for approaching missiles targeted at Kerch Bridge.
There were also more radar reflectors attached to the shallows close to the bridge but whether these were navigational aids or countermeasures was unclear.
Additionally, Russia also deployed smokescreens which are a well-known technique used by Russia, and some of their forces are specifically trained to use them.
Strategic targets have been hidden during drills and operations using smokescreens, such as in November 2021 when the Russian Navy covered its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.
The Russians recently conducted an exercise on the Crimea Bridge involving smokescreens… it did not go very well for some unfortunate motorists. pic.twitter.com/s7p36iVRXs
— Doge (@IntelDoge) July 3, 2022
It appears that Russia was concentrating, at least in part, on defending the Kerch Bridge as it boosted its air defense capabilities in Crimea, which are already well-known to be quite dense. There are expected to be other countermeasures, like EW systems to confuse and deflect the adversary.
The bridge has already been well protected with the Russian Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) system in place. In 2017, Russia established a marine brigade within the National Guard tasked specifically with defending the Kerch Strait and the Bridge, according to The Ukrainian Weekly.
The brigade was equipped with anti-saboteur ships and combat divers, and a sonar system (sonobuoys) was deployed around the perimeter of the Kerch Bridge. Back in 2018, it was reported that Russia was planning to launch “unmanned underwater vehicles” into neighboring waters, including the Azov Sea, and deploy sophisticated air defense systems.
However, to Russian advantage, there is no longer any proximity between the Kerch Bridge and Ukrainian-controlled territory, which raises concerns about the exact type of strike that Russia worries Ukraine would launch.
Sutton said that due to the distance, an aircraft attack might be considered, but added that the existence of Russian S-300 and S-400 missile systems would undoubtedly hamper such operations. Although theoretically plausible, an underwater attack is extremely rare on almost every level.
The Ukrainian government has repeatedly said that it needs long-range weaponry systems to launch a missile attack against the facility. Despite pledging massive military aid to Ukraine, the West has also stopped short of sending advanced fighter jets or bombers to Ukraine for fear of escalation.
Ukraine’s Options To Strike Kerch Bridge?
HIMARS and Harpoons supplied by the US and UK offer Ukrainian soldiers much-needed firepower despite their limitations at long range.
As of now, Ukraine has two relatively long-range missiles- Harpoons and HIMARS. Except when shot from inside Russian-occupied territory or from far out in the Black Sea, Harpoons lack the range needed for such an attack. The Harpoon missile is also not a land-based missile.
HIMARS has an even more constrained range but it can make targeted attacks against very valuable ground targets owing to its spot-on precision. Both systems are unknown for the magnitude of their warheads. While the Harpoon carries one that weighs around 500 pounds, the HIMARS’ M31 rocket carries about 250 pounds.
“From Nikolaev (or Mykolaiv), a possible strike can be arranged, but a cursory look at the Google map shows the bridge is about 395 km away. Another staging area can be Zaporizhzhia, where the bridge is about 300 km away and under Russian control. The sea route from Snake island to the bridge is about 496 km. So, Ukraine cannot strike the bridge even with the 300 km Harpoons, the longest ranged projectile currently available.
In my opinion, Moscow is not worried about overt Ukrainian military capability but the covert operation by Western intelligence agencies. Russia is explicit about the Western involvement in the Snake Island attacks. Moscow may be anticipating Western intelligence-backed rouge divers to attack the bridge,” says Joseph P Chacko, a Geopolitical analyst.
The #Ukraine government shared a video clip stating that the UAF used an anti-ship missile #Harpoon to sink the Russian vessel Vasiliy Bekh yesterday in the Black Sea. The ship was delivering an anti-air system and troops to the occupied Snake Island but the Harpoon killed them. pic.twitter.com/llwmgbahHo
— Viktor Kovalenko (@MrKovalenko) June 19, 2022
These missiles can be used to target parts of the bridge but are unlikely to cause severe and debilitating damage to the Kerch bridge. Further, any attack on the Kerch bridge could lead to an angry Russian retaliation and intensified attack as was the case after the sinking of Russia’s flagship cruiser Moskva.
On another note, the US or any other country has made no mention of sending weapons with longer range than the HIMARS and Harpoons. So while Russia has prepared itself for a standoff attack from Ukraine, there could still be some time before the latter could manage one if at all.