Ukraine at D+509: Kerch Strai flashpoint.
N2K logoJul 18, 2023

Heavy fighting continues with negligible changes to the lines.

Ukraine at D+509: Kerch Strai flashpoint.

Russia makes a push in the Kupiansk sector, toward the north of the front, while Ukraine attacks in the south. Fighting is locally heavy, Al Jazeera reports, but neither side has made much progress. POLITICO quotes Ukrainian sources that claim Russian troop strength around Kharkiv has risen to 100,000.

The morning report from the UK's Ministry of Defence reviews the ongoing attritional engagements. "Over the last week, fighting has continued in multiple sectors of the front, with both sides achieving marginal advances in different areas. In the north-east, Russian forces have attempted to push west through forests west of Kremina. Ukraine continues to resource significant effort around Russian-held Bakhmut. Here Russian forces are likely fragile but holding for now. Further south in Donetsk Oblast, especially around Avdiivka, Russian forces continue to attempt local assaults, with little success. In the south, Ukraine continues to attack on at least two axes, but is unlikely to have yet broken into Russia’s primary defensive lines.In this area, Russia has likely implemented a shell-rationing regime for artillery in an attempt to preserve its critical indirect fire capability. In Kherson Oblast, Ukraine maintains a small bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro River near the ruined Antonivsky Bridge which is an added challenge for Russian commanders who are likely concerned about the vulnerability of their south-western flank."

Why the Kerch Strait Bridge matters.

Monday's strike against the Kerch Strait Bridge linking occupied Crimea with Russia proper, which Russia attributes to Ukraine (no doubt correctly--while Ukraine hasn't officially claimed responsibility, an anonymous source within the Ukrainian SBU security service told CNN that the attack was a joint operation of the SBU and the navy) is said by Sky News to have shaken President Putin's narrative of being in control of his war:

  • "It provides a vital logistic supply route for Russian forces in southern Ukraine, so disrupting the bridge has a direct impact on Russian frontline capability.
  • "The bridge is highly symbolic. It was built by a Putin-controlled Russian company and Mr Putin is immensely proud of the bridge - indeed he reopened the road element following a massive explosion in 22 October by driving himself in a Mercedes across the repaired road section. An attack on the bridge will have had a personal impact on Mr Putin.
  • "Messaging. Mr Putin tightly controls the information narrative in Russia, with state control of media and the internet. However, it is very hard to hide the targeting of a vital road bridge from the Russian population. Russians based in Crimea cannot drive across the bridge and reports of the attack will have sent shock-waves through the civilian community. And, wealthy Russians who enjoy holidaying at the warm-water beaches of Crimea will have to re-think their plans. Indeed, traffic is backed up both sides of the bridge."

Thus the Kerch Strait Bridge, twelve miles long and constructed after Russia's 2014 conquest and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean region, is not only logistically important to maintaining Russian access to and control over the occupied peninsula, but it's an article of national prestige: a big project that's been presented as a symbol of Russian engineering prowess and national determination.

One lane of the bridge has reopened to limited traffic. Russian officials are working to frame the attack on the bridge as "terrorism," and the Ukrainian government as an "international organized crime group," enabled by the American and British governments. (The mayor of Kharkiv dismissed that characterization, saying essentially that, if you want to see what terrorism looks like, consult Russia's brutal and indiscriminate conduct during its war of aggression.) Meanwhile Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian cities continue. POLITICO reports that Russian forces launched twenty-one Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones against the port of Odessa. Ukraine says its air defenses shot down all twenty one, but as often happens debris from the interceptions did damage to buildings on the ground. Russia's Ministry of Defense characterized the drones launched against both Odessa and Mikolayev a "mass revenge strike," retaliation for Ukraine's downing of the Kerch Strait Bridge.

Cyber crime, without obvious political allegiance.

We've grown accustomed to seeing criminal gangs and hacktivists function, during the hybrid war Russia has unleashed against Ukraine, as either privateers or auxiliaries, operating in the interest of one of the belligerents. Most of this activity has been Russian, but at least one Russian (or at least Russophone) gang, RedCurl, seems to have continued to act in a purely criminal fashion, not obviously working in the interest of any government. Researchers at F.A.C.C.T., which the Record describes as an "offshoot" of Group-IB, describe RedCurl's action against both Russian and Australian targets. The gang's initial approach is through phishing. Their goal isn't either the installation of ransomware or the threat of extortion through doxing. Rather, RedCurl engages in industrial espionage, seeking to steal valuable commercial information. About half of RedCurl's attacks have hit Russian targets. The other half have been distributed across Ukraine, Canada, and various European countries.