A bridge too far?
Russian air strikes on the centre of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities this week killed at least 19 people and injured dozens more. The missile attacks came two days after the bombing of the Kerch bridge, the only direct link between Russia and Crimea – the area of Ukraine annexed by Russia in 2014. Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev described the air assault as the "first episode" of Moscow's planned response to the bridge attack.
Vladimir Putin labelled the explosions that took out a section of the road bridge and caused significant damage to the rail line as “terrorist acts” by Ukraine and promised a harsh response. Moscow has blamed Ukraine’s security services for the attack, which occurred when a truck blew up while crossing the heavily fortified bridge, killing four people. Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the actions.
Although the Kerch bridge might appear an obvious focus for a Ukrainian attack, given its strategic and symbolic worth to Russia – and to Putin in particular – it is no surprise that it has not been targeted successfully until now.
The 12-mile steel and concrete bridge is heavily defended. It is fortified with Russian air defence missile batteries, and surrounded by barges with radar reflectors to act as radar decoys and confuse Ukrainian missiles. The bridge is also patrolled by elite troops and combat air defences, with attack helicopters at the ready nearby. Even with its sophisticated weaponry supplied by the West, Ukraine lacks the means to inflict lasting damage on such a structure.
For Ukraine, the bridge is a key military target, given its role as a strategic supply and logistics route for Russian forces on the southern front centred around Kherson, taken by Russia in the early days of the war and still the only major Ukrainian city to have fallen to the enemy. A Ukrainian operation to seize back territory around Kherson was already seeing some success before the bridge attack. The Kerch bridge is also crucial for the supply of food, fuel and other goods to Crimea itself.
The bridge is important in symbolic as well as practical terms. It is a manifestation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea – the only direct link between Russia’s transport network and the Crimean peninsula. Costing $3.6bn, it was built by a firm belonging to Putin ally Arkady Rotenberg – a former judo partner of the Russian president – and is the longest bridge in Europe. In 2018, Putin himself opened it to great fanfare by ceremoniously driving a truck across the strait. The bridge was described by Russian state media at the time as “the construction of the century”. That the explosions occurred a day after Putin’s 70th birthday will not have been lost on him.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 followed immediately after the Revolution of Dignity – Kyiv’s long and bitter Maidan uprising that forced then-president Viktor Yanukovych to stand down after months of brutal government crackdowns on protestors. The demonstrations had begun as a protest over Yanukovych’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Union, following an eleventh-hour reversal under pressure from Putin. The Russian president had threatened to cut of gas supplies to Ukraine, while dangling a carrot of advantageous participation in his latest project – a Eurasian customs union.
Crimea has always been somewhat apart from the rest of Ukraine. It became part of the Russian Empire in 1783 following a battle against Ottoman forces. Within the Soviet Union, it was transferred from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, with the official rationale that its transfer commemorated the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Ukraine with Russia (a reference to the 1654 Pereiaslav Agreement) and in recognition of the territorial proximity of Crimea to Ukraine and their cultural, economic and agricultural affinities.
Neither of these justifications stands up to much scrutiny. Although Crimea is attached by land to Ukraine – via the isthmus of Perekop – and had important economic and infrastructural ties with Ukraine, its cultural and military links were always stronger with Russia.
Ever since Tsarist times, Crimea had been the site of key military bases and was a symbol of Imperial Russian power against the Ottoman Turks. The naval base at Sevastopol is famously the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. What is more, the ethnic mix of Crimea’s population of just over a million at the time of its transfer to Ukraine was roughly three-quarters Russian and a quarter Ukrainian. The peninsula had been populated for centuries primarily by Crimean Tatars, until 1944 when Joseph Stalin had ordered the ethnic cleansing of Crimea, deporting the Tatars en masse to Central Asia. Smaller populations of Armenians, Bulgarians and Greeks were also expelled from Crimea.
According to an article by the author and academic Mark Kramer for the US think tank, the Wilson Center, the real reasons for the Soviet authorities’ decision to transfer Crimea to Ukraine are quite different.
Of particular importance, he says, was the role of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev who, at the time of the transfer in February 1954, was still trying to consolidate his position in the post-Stalin power struggle. For Khrushchev, securing Crimea for Ukraine was a means of winning support from local Ukrainian elites – in particular Oleksy Kyrychenko, who had become first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine – in his battle for power with Soviet prime minister Georgy Malenkov.
Khrushchev himself had served as the head of Ukraine’s Communist Party until 1949, and had overseen brutal efforts to enforce Soviet control over an unwilling and restive population in the parts of western Ukraine annexed from Poland in 1939. In the wake of the atrocities, Kramer says, the transfer of Crimea acted as a means to fortify and perpetuate Soviet control over Ukraine, with the addition of around 860,000 ethnic Russians to an already large Russian minority in Ukraine.
In his closing remarks at the session of the Supreme Soviet in 1954, chairman Kliment Voroshilov declared that “enemies of Russia” had “repeatedly tried to take the Crimean peninsula from Russia and use it to steal and ravage Russian lands”. How ironic his comments appear today, in light of the 2014 annexation and the current war, with Russia itself first taking Crimea from Ukraine and now using it as a supply and logistics hub to steal and ravage Ukrainian lands.
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Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.