The Kremlin’s intention was to show that the attack on the Crimean bridge was not that serious and that a key lifeline from mainland Russia to the illegally annexed Crimean peninsula would soon return to normal.
The physical damage can be repaired—Russia dispatched a large emergency response team to the scene immediately—but the damage to Russia’s prestige, and more importantly to Vladimir Putin’s image, will not be so easily repaired.
This is his bridge, his The project cost nearly $4 billion and came from the Russian state treasury. It’s an iconic “wedding band” that unites Mother Russia and Ukraine, or at least a region that still legally belongs to Ukraine, which is vital not only to Putin’s war effort, but also to his efforts to bring Ukraine back together. The obsession with being under Russian control is also crucial.
Putin’s February 21 address to the Russian people, before ordering the invasion of Ukraine, exposed his distorted view of history. Ukraine, he insists, is not a truly independent country: “For us, Ukraine is not just a neighbor,” he claimed. “It’s an integral part of our own historical, cultural and spiritual space.”
That speech, one of the most illuminating of his presidency, made it clear that this cannibalistic war against Ukraine was deeply personal to him. For many years, he focused on the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who founded St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, the city where Putin was born and raised. In the early 1990s, after Putin returned from working as a KGB agent in East Germany, I visited city government offices. On the wall above his desk is a portrait of Peter the Great.
In June, as Ukraine’s bitter war entered its fourth month, Putin again compared himself to Peter the Great, insisting that Peter, who had conquered land from Sweden, was “returning” to what really belonged to Russia.
Apparently, Putin now believes that returning Ukraine to Russia is his historical destiny. He may have considered the attack on the Crimea Bridge not only an attack on Russia’s homeland, but a personal insult. He is likely to react viciously.
A day after the attack, Russian troops were already bombing civilian apartment buildings in Ukraine. Hardline Putin supporters are urging more strikes on Ukraine’s infrastructure. Western leaders have warned that an increasingly frustrated Putin could resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Military experts say he can retaliate asymmetrically, hitting unexpected targets.
Over the years, Putin has also had an obsession: punishing traitors. A month after his troops attacked Ukraine, he threatened to retaliate against any Russians who opposed the war, calling them “fifth column…national traitors” enslaved by the West.
This Sunday, the day after the bridge exploded, he called it a “terrorist attack” whose “authors, performers and masterminds” were Ukrainian agents … and “Russian citizens from foreign countries.”
One thing is clear: Vladimir Putin believes his “historic mission” is in jeopardy as the battle draws closer to Russia. This means that emotions can outweigh reason. This is a dangerous time for Ukraine, for the Russians and for the world who oppose the war.