Ukraine war: a desperate Russia defaults to attacking civilians

The Conversation

If you wanted an indication of how badly Russia’s war is going and how much pressure Vladimir Putin is under, then the missile attacks on Kyiv and Ukraine’s major cities over the last day or two are as good as any. These attacks have no military value; they won’t stall Ukraine’s successful counteroffensives in the south and east. They merely aim to terrify the Ukrainian people. History tells us this approach rarely works.

The successful attack on Kerch bridge has clearly cut Putin to the quick. The bridge was one of Putin’s signature projects and a major strategic asset for the Russian military, providing its main road and rail connection between the Russian mainland and the Crimean peninsula.

As well as a brilliantly successful demonstration of Ukrainian special operations – blamed by Russia on the feared Ukrainian intelligence service the SBU (who now appear to have admitted as much), this was also an indicator of where this war is going. Russia’s decision to respond by attacking civilian targets has been equally significant.

From the purely military angle alone, the operation against Kerch bridge was the most effective disruption of enemy supplies deep behind the lines in recent military history. The bridge carried thousands of tonnes a day to Crimea and to the Kherson front from bases in and around Rostov and Russia’s southern military district.

The bridge has partially reopened with much-reduced capacity, with a one-way motor lane (restricted to 3.5 tonnes for each vehicle) and a single rail track. There is a considerable military and civilian ferry capability, but that will offset only a fraction of the lost capacity of the Kerch bridge.

This shortfall in supplies will now have to transit the M14 road on the south coast of occupied Ukraine and railways already seriously damaged by Ukrainian attacks. These remain vulnerable to Ukrainian attack should the Ukrainians strike south towards Melitopol and the Azov Sea coast, which has been possible in the last few months.

Seriously compounding Russia’s problems, Ukrainian forces now armed to a great extent with captured Russian tanks, have been pushing hard and effectively into Russian lines around Kherson. One axis of the Ukrainian attack in the south has been towards the city of Nova Khakhova. When (and it is when) Nova Khakhova is taken, this will have a profound effect on Russian commanders, as it is vital to Russian and Ukrainian strategic aims.

Since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the question of supplying water to their occupied territories has been one of the critical issues defining Russia’s war. Crimea, being a part of Ukraine’s territory since 1954, depended and continues to depend on Ukrainian infrastructure – and no element is more important for Crimeans than the Soviet-built North Crimean canal. This begins at Nova Khakhova and provided up to 85% of the peninsula’s water supplies. After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the Ukrainians stopped the flow into the canal. It was only opened again this year after the Russians invaded Ukraine.

Each day, Ukrainian forces destroy or capture dozens of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles. When Ukraine takes Nova Khakhova it will again be in a position once again to cut the water supply to Crimea. This will pose serious questions for Russian strategists, and place the inhabitants of Crimea in a far worse position than they were before February this year. That is before we consider the greatly reduced flow of supplies across the seriously damaged bridge. We can see then where the war is heading – to Crimea.

On the battlefield, there is little the enfeebled and ramshackle Russian armed forces can do to prevent Ukrainian forces retaking both Nova Khakova and Kherson. Crimea will soon be directly threatened by Ukrainian ground forces – perhaps even before winter sets in.

Turning the fire on civilians

This is an unfortunate confluence of circumstances for Russian commanders and it has created something of a turning point, marked by the subsequent deliberate attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine’s major cities. One of the first precision-guided missiles went into a children’s playground in central Kyiv’s Shevchenko Park.

Another was aimed at a glass bridge, known as a tourist site. Ironically, perhaps, given Ukraine’s successful and rather more significant weekend strike and accentuating Russia’s increasing reputation as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight”, it missed the bridge, which remains standing. More damaging were strikes on energy infrastructure and other civilian targets.

Russia’s conventional military efforts are failing. After multiple battlefield defeats, they are defaulting to their hallmark in recent conflicts, massive direct attacks on civilian targets. Given the large scale of the attacks, it is likely that they were planned before the attack on the bridge. Russian general Sergei Surovikin, a well-known master of indiscriminate brutality. Surovikin is infamous in Russia for ordering his unit to attack demonstrators in 1991. He also led Russia’s campaign against Syrian rebels in 2019, and was recently appointed as the first overall commander of Russian forces. The order to execute the planned attacks is likely to have come from him.

We do know the purpose behind the strikes. It is the same thinking that compelled the Royal Air Force to obliterate dozens of German cities and kill hundreds of thousands of civilians during the combined bomber offensive in the second world war: to attack the civilian will to resist. That campaign failed as did many others like it, not least and of more relevance to Russia, the siege of Leningrad.

One is given to wonder why the Russians think this campaign might be different. It won’t, of course. A good friend of mine, writing from a Kyiv shelter, told me that the response is: “Only cold fury, no fear or despair … all Russia’s might has shrunk to the size of a flea. We will do to Putin what we did to the Moskva and their Kerch bridge.”

Frank Ledwidge is affiliated with the Kyiv Transatlantic Dialogue Center