Ukraine war: importance of Zaporizhzhia power plant, Kerch bridge and Sergei Surovikin in the conflict

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The conflict has heated up once again after a series of attack in Kyiv and the appointment of Putin’s new war commander

The war in Ukraine has ramped up once again in the past fortnight, with attacks in Kyiv, Russia annexing more regions of Ukraine and a consequential explosion to a key bridge in Crimea.

The events have led to an acceleration of Putin’s war tactics, with Ukrainian civilian targets being hammered by missile and shelling attacks. Not only that but he has also overhauled a key role in his government, with the aim of taking a grip on the war his country was finding itself surprisingly on the backfoot in.

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NationalWorld has welcomed back James Rogers, co-founder and director of strategy at Council on Geostrategy, to break down and explain what the recent events mean for Putin, Zelensky and the wider conflict. This is the current state of play in Ukraine.

Kerch Bridge explosion gives Russia ‘strategic implications’

The Kerch Bridge, which provides the only physical link between Crimea and Russia, was attacked on 8 October. The explosion on the rail and highway bridge, which many Ukrainian believe was built illegally between Russia and annexed Crimea, put it out of commission for many days, with Russia blaming the attack on Ukraine.

Rogers, who describes the attack as a “public relations disaster” for the Kremlin, said: “In terms of the strategic implications, firstly, it’s obviously degraded Russia’s main and only communications line directly between Russia and Crimea. And secondly, it’s been a huge strategic defeat in a way for Russia in the sense that this major communication line which was opened with some celebration and fanfare, only a few years ago, has been destroyed, or at least significantly degraded.”

However, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack on Kerch Bridge. Russia has since detained eight people, five of which were Russian, the other Ukrainian and Armenian.

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People look at thick black smoke rising from a fire on the Kerch bridge that links Crimea to Russia, after a truck exploded, near Kerch, on 8 October 2022 (Photo: ROMAN DMITRIYEV/AFP via Getty Images)People look at thick black smoke rising from a fire on the Kerch bridge that links Crimea to Russia, after a truck exploded, near Kerch, on 8 October 2022 (Photo: ROMAN DMITRIYEV/AFP via Getty Images)
People look at thick black smoke rising from a fire on the Kerch bridge that links Crimea to Russia, after a truck exploded, near Kerch, on 8 October 2022 (Photo: ROMAN DMITRIYEV/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

Putin uses bridge explosion to make waves in Kyiv

One of the impacts of the attack was the Russian retaliation. Missile attacks were launched in Kyiv and Lviv following the explosion.

“This seems to have come in response to the attack, [although] it’s still unclear who made the attack. The Russians, of course, have blamed the Ukrainians, the Ukrainians have stated that it was an internal problem relating to Russia. But nonetheless, the Russians have certainly used it to fling an array of missiles at Kyiv, and other key Ukrainian cities,” explains Rogers.

Adding to the reasons for attack, Rogers believed that the retaliation attacks have also given the Kremlin a chance to flex its military prowess, in the face of “poor results” in the past few weeks. He said: “This really does ramp up pressure on the Kremlin, particularly when the results have been so poor. The ‘special military operation’ as the Kremlin calls it that was unleashed back in February has so far not really delivered any significant results, and has led in many respects to Russia’s humiliation in front of the world as their military failures have racked up.”

Russian missiles have targeted civilian areas in Kyiv. (Credit: Getty Images)Russian missiles have targeted civilian areas in Kyiv. (Credit: Getty Images)
Russian missiles have targeted civilian areas in Kyiv. (Credit: Getty Images) | Getty Images

Zaporizhzhia Power Plant used to ‘turn the screw’ on Ukrainians

Eyes were on Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, after power was lost on the site amid missile and shelling attacks. The plant, the largest in Ukraine, has a huge significance to its home country, but its importance in the war may not end in the nuclear disaster feared by many.

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Rogers explains that the technical importance of the plant lies in its capacity to supply much of Ukraine’s electricity, but that this has actually faded into the background in recent weeks. He said: “My understanding is that the power plant has been operating at reduced capacity and in many cases has been closed down and reactors have been shut down. So they’re not vulnerable to attacks from Russia.”

The battle for Zaporizhzhia Power Plant lies mainly in the chance to use the resource as a pawn in the war.

“It’s an attempt just to turn the screw a little bit tighter and make life harder and harder for the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government in the belief that eventually the Ukrainian people will crack under the pressure either rise up against their government or demand that the government settle for peace,” Rogers explains.

However, the likelihood of this is very low, he explains further: “We’re talking here about the kinds of devastation that were inflicted on countries like Nazi Germany or Japan during Second World War at this stage. Russia hasn’t attempted to do that to Ukraine, even though certain Ukrainian cities, particularly in the East in the South have been, have sought significant destruction inflicted on them, including on civilian areas.”

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Putin’s grip on public perception tightens as he adds ‘Butcher of Syria’ as war commander

Despite there being protests in Russia against the partial mobilisation, Rogers explains that the Kremlin still has a strong grip on the country’s media and, in turn, the public’s perception of the war. He said: “Russia is a relatively closed society. The problem is, people in Russia may not be willing to share their true feelings for fear of reprisals by the government or the authorities.

“What we do know is that there have been some limited protests in large Russian cities, but these have generally been silenced by the Russian authorities.”

However, some chatter against Putin and his methods in the war has broken through. Commentators on political panel shows in the country have begun openly, but gently, questioning the leader’s handling of the situation. However, Rogers explains that these whispers of criticism haven’t broken through to the mainstream yet.

“The situation looks bleaker than it did, but the extent to which the Russian state still has control over the media means that firstly, the true position [of the public] may not not be known yet, or indeed for some time to come. And secondly, it still has the ability to influence perceptions using these various organs, and it doesn’t seem at this stage, at least, that there’s any significant resistance coming to the Kremlin.”

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Putin made a move prior to the Kyiv attacks to appoint Sergei Surovikin as the new war commander for Russia. Surovikin is known as a tough commander, and has been referred to in the media as ‘the butcher of Syria’ for his part in the assault on the jihadist groups in the Middle Eastern country.

Putin has appointed Sergei Surovikin as Russia’s new war commander. (Credit: Getty Images)Putin has appointed Sergei Surovikin as Russia’s new war commander. (Credit: Getty Images)
Putin has appointed Sergei Surovikin as Russia’s new war commander. (Credit: Getty Images) | SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

“He does seem prepared to do things to up the ante to do things that other commanders may not have yet been willing to do. And, at least from a military standpoint, if looked at very coldly, he does seem to have had some successes in the past,” explains Rogers.

“But the problem here is the kinds of operations that Russia has engaged in, in the past in Syria, are very, very different from what it’s currently undertaking in Ukraine - they were much more limited. Whereas this is an attempted invasion of a huge section of an entire country and the largest country other than Russia, that is actually in Europe. So it’s a fundamentally different military operation.”

Rogers calls Surovikin’s appointment a “symbolic move” by Putin, who is looking to “up the ante” the conflict. He said: “They’re trying to escalate, they’re trying to show that they can take measures to prevail. The issue is whether those actually bear fruit or results. I doubt ultimately they will, and the same problems will continue to afflict them with the Russian military operation.”

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Ukraine’s NATO application faces stumbling block

One of the major moments in the recent conflict was the formal annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia following sham Russian referendums in eastern Ukraine. As a result of this, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to make a ‘fast-tracked’ application to the defence alliance NATO.

However, there may be a limit on its success, Rogers explains, as the move to admit the country would take the war into a whole new stratosphere. He said: “NATO will not accept any will not accept a member, a prospective member that has a lack of territorial cohesion,”

“There is the risk that that member, once it becomes an ally, could then invoke Article four, or Article Five, particularly of the North Atlantic Treaty, which would then provide it with direct military assistance. So it’s very unlikely that NATO would allow Ukraine to become a member anytime while areas of Ukrainian territory are under the occupation of a foreign power.”

However, NATO reluctance to grant Ukraine membership may be consoled with an increase in financial and resource support.

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“They’ve been amplifying the quantity of assistance provided and the type of assistance so it’s gone from relatively small light weapons to increasingly sophisticated and lethal weapons that can really inflict quite grievous damage on Russian forces.”

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