KYIV – Russia-appointed officials in Crimea said that a bridge between the Moscow-annexed peninsula and Russia-occupied areas in southern Ukraine was hit by missiles Thursday, threatening a key supply link to Russian forces amid the early stages of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Russian military has relied on the Chongar bridge as the principal connection to its forces in the Kherson region, part of which is controlled by Moscow. Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-appointed Kherson governor, said the bridge was hit by air-launched Storm Shadow missiles supplied by the U.K.
Ukrainian authorities, who usually refrain from commenting on specific attacks, didn’t directly claim responsibility for the strike, but spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk for the Ukrainian military’s Southern Command emphasized the importance of derailing Russia's logistics in televised comments.
“We are destroying enemy plans, destroying the enemy’s capability to stand up against us,” she said.
Russia-appointed officials in Crimea said that while it could take weeks to fully repair the bridge, traffic could continue on one lane and noted that two other crossings are also available. But despite those attempts to downplay the damage, the attack has hurt the Russian military logistics at a time when Ukranian forces are probing Russian defenses in the initial stages of a long-expected counteroffensive.
Ukrainian authorities have said that for the war to end, Russia must withdraw its forces from Crimea that it illegally annexed in 2014 as well as from the areas that Moscow seized since launching the full-scale invasion 16 months ago.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned earlier this week that Ukraine was planning to use U.S.-made HIMARS and U.K.-provided Storm Shadow missiles to attack Russian territory, including Crimea. He warned that use of those missiles against targets outside the combat zone would “trigger immediate strikes on the decision-making centers on the territory of Ukraine.”
But on Thursday, Shoigu sought to downplay the importance of West-supplied advanced weapons like the Storm Shadow missiles as he reported to Putin during a session of Russia's Security Council.
“We understand that the quantity that will be delivered in 2023 and that has already been delivered will not significantly affect the course of hostilities,” Shoigu said.
Shoigu declared that Russian forces have successfully fended off Ukrainian attempts to break through Russian defenses as part of a counteroffensive that began earlier this month. He claimed that Ukrainian troops are now regrouping after suffering heavy losses, noting that “the enemy still has forces to continue offensive operations.”
Shoigu said that the Russian military is forming additional reserves after drawing an additional 166,000 volunteer soldiers this year. That number tops 300,000 reservists who were mobilized on Putin's order in the fall.
Shoigu added that while the volunteers are “highly motivated and eager to go to combat,” the military doesn't need them yet and will continue training them for now. They will be pulled together under a single command, the minister said.
Neither Putin, nor Shoigu made any mention of the attack on the Chongar bridge in their televised comments at the start of a security meeting.
In the opening days of Russia's February 2022 invasion, Russian troops from Crimea pushed north and quickly captured the entire Kherson province. Ukraine reclaimed the city of Kherson and other areas on the west bank of the Dnieper that bisects the province during its counteroffensive in the fall.
Russia has continued to hold onto the east bank. The destruction of an upriver dam this month caused dozens of deaths and extensive flooding on both sides. Ukrainian commanders say it also got in the way of some of their plans for taking Russian positions in the area in the counteroffensive's initial stages.
Addressing the overall progress of the counteroffensive unfolding in Ukraine's south and east, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Thursday that Ukraine's army had advanced 7 kilometers and retaken territory that included eight villages during the last two weeks.
“As the president of Ukraine said yesterday, the counteroffensive is not a Hollywood movie. It’s not an easy walk,” Shmyhal told reporters at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London. “The counteroffensive is a number of military operations. Sometimes it’s offensive, sometimes it’s defensive. Sometimes it could be tactical pauses. Unfortunately, during our preparation for this counteroffensive, Russians were preparing too. So there is so much minefields, which really make it slower.”
Shmyhal urged Ukraine's Western allies to be patient, noting that Ukraine will proceed carefully in the high-stakes campaign.
“We not bring our people into the fire of this war as Russians (are) doing. … We will do very smart offensive operations and because of this it will take time,” the prime minister said. “We all should have patience and we will see results.”
The Crimean Peninsula is connected to mainland Ukraine by an isthmus about 9 kilometers (6 miles) wide and several bridges.
An October truck bomb explosion on the 19-kilometer (12-mile) Kerch Bridge over a strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov caused its partial collapse. It took Russia months to repair the bridge, which is Europe's longest and a symbol of Moscow’s claims on Crimea.
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