The Kremlin is intent on demonstrating that the attack on the Crimean bridge was not so serious and that the crucial lifeline from the Russian mainland to the illegally annexed Crimean peninsula will soon return to normal.
The physical damage can be restored—Russia immediately dispatched a large emergency team to the site—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 project, built with the equivalent of nearly $4 billion from the Russian treasury. It’s a symbolic “wedding band” linking Mother Russia and Ukraine, or at least a region that still legally belongs to Ukraine, crucial not only to Putin’s war effort, but also to his obsession with getting Ukraine back under Russian control.
Putin’s Feb. 21 speech to the Russian people, delivered just before he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, laid bare his warped view of history. Ukraine, he insists, is not really an independent country: “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us,” he said. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”
That speech, one of the most revealing of his presidency, makes it clear that this fratricidal war against Ukraine is very personal to him. For many years he has focused on Peter the Great, the Russian tsar who founded St. Petersburg, the city where Putin was born and raised. I once visited the city administration office where Putin worked in the early 1990s after he returned from his work as a KGB agent in East Germany. On the wall above his desk was a portrait of Peter the Great.
In June this year, as the war in Ukraine entered its fourth month, Putin again compared himself to Peter the Great, insisting that Peter, who conquered land from Sweden, was “giving back” to Russia what he really it belonged to him
Putin now apparently believes that returning Ukraine to Russia is his historic destiny. He probably sees the violent attack on the Crimean bridge not just as an attack on the Russian homeland, but as a personal affront. And he is likely to respond brutally.
Already, a day after the attack, Russian forces are bombing civilian apartment buildings in Ukraine. Putin supporters call for more strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure. Western leaders warn that an increasingly frustrated Putin could turn to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Military experts say it could retaliate asymmetrically, hitting unexpected targets.
For years, Putin has had another obsession: punishing traitors. A month after his forces attacked Ukraine, he threatened retaliation against Russians who opposed the war, calling them a “fifth column … national traitors” lashing out at the West.
This Sunday, the day after the attack on the bridge, he described it as a “terrorist attack” whose “authors, executors and masterminds” are the secret services of Ukraine… and “citizens of Russia from foreign countries “.
One thing is clear: As the fighting closes in on Russia, Vladimir Putin sees his “historic mission” in jeopardy. And this means that emotions could overcome reason. For Ukraine, for Russians who oppose the war, and for the world, this is a dangerous time.