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On Building Bridges and Bombing Them

By Michael D. Reisman

As we commemorate the tenth anniversaries of the Revolution of Dignity and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and launch of war in Donbas, as well as the second anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion, I am thinking of the Kerch Bridge.


When I think of the Kerch Bridge, I hear a hauntingly beautiful song called “Building Bridges and Bombing Them” by an 80s rock-dance band called Mambo X, whose lead singer sat next to me in an American history course my first year of college when I led a contradictory life as a peace activist and member of the military history book club. In class, Erin seemed shy, but onstage she whirled and twirled and boldly sang about anger and forgiveness and the longing for redemption, issues I was trying to reconcile. And still am.


In the aftermath of a devastating loss in Avdiivka and the depraved willingness of Trump and his ignorant band of grifters to let an ally twist in the bitter neo-Stalinist wind, Ukraine needs a military victory as soon as possible. It must therefore bomb the Kerch Bridge, this time for good, in order to get back on the path to future peace. Adios, contradictions.


Putin built the Kerch Bridge, which connects occupied Crimea to the Russian mainland, for propaganda and military reasons. Its vehicle and rail lines serve as a major conduit for Russia’s transport of soldiers and weapons to Crimea and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, where it is reportedly massing its forces.


No matter how many atrocities the Russians commit, a list lengthened by last week’s chilling Human Rights Watch report about Russian war crimes in Mariupol, it is imperative that Ukraine abide by the law of war to maintain the moral high ground and continue to advance the values of respect for human life, justice, and liberty, which its enemy has renounced. Although evaluating the legality of complex operational battlefield decisions can be challenging, the Kerch Bridge is an easy call. Its destruction would undoubtedly comply with two key aspects of the international law of war.


The first is distinction between the civilian population and military objectives, the latter being defined in Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Article 52(2) as “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction … offers a definite military advantage.”


The bridge is a bona fide military objective because it allows Russian units laying siege to southern Ukrainian cities a direct means of transport through Crimea to Russian-occupied territory, even though it allows potential civilian use (though one has to wonder what kind of civilians use it these days). Its destruction would allow Ukrainian forces to “cut it off and kill it,” to paraphrase former U.S. top general and Secretary of State Colin Powell.


The next vital principle is proportionality, which as defined in Additional Protocol I, Article 51(5)(b), bars attacks that “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects … which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” Ukraine’s first two attacks on the Kerch Bridge in October 2022 and July 2023 resulted in a very small number of civilian deaths, which suggests that a third attack would be proportional, especially if conducted at a time when significant civilian harm was unlikely, such as early morning.


Ukraine damaged but failed to destroy the Kerch Bridge with a truck bomb and an explosive-laden sea drone, which begs the question, how can it be done? The answer: missiles.


As former Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe, Ben Hodges, and several civil engineering professors at the U.S. Military Academy recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “ATACMS missiles with unitary warheads could allow Ukraine to regularly strike the more vulnerable spans of the bridge, … [which] would dilute the strategic advantage Russia’s war machine derives from its occupation of the [Crimean] peninsula.”


It is thus a welcome development that the Biden administration for the first time has signaled its willingness to supply Ukraine with long-range ATACMS missiles capable of striking Russian targets in Crimea. It may do this by either asking an ally in NATO (which now collectively meets the target of defense spending as two percent of GDP) to send missiles to Ukraine or by including the missiles in an assistance package, assuming Mike "Mini-Trump" Johnson shows up to work and allows the House to vote on an aid bill overwhelmingly approved by the Senate.


Because the destruction of the Kerch Bridge could quickly turn the tide of the war, it is likely that Putin, who has infamously twice driven vehicles (most recently a Merc) across his $4.5 billion monument to Novorossiyan imperialism, would seek revenge that might exceed the crimes he has already committed. Only the Ukrainian people can decide whether they are willing to bear that burden.


This brings to mind the assassination of high-ranking SS official and architect of the Holocaust Reinhard Heydrich by Czech and Slovak commandos during World War II, which Hitler compared to losing a major battle. Reprisals were savage and random, but eventually the consensus was that killing Heydrich was worth it.

A favorite hiking trail not far from my house runs through a state park in which West Point cadets, under the direction of an author of the Foreign Affairs article, built several lovely wooden footbridges over streams that gently weave through the landscape. If Ukraine decides that bombing the Kerch Bridge is worth it, my hope is that such a brave decision would bring Ukrainians closer to the day when they can focus their immense energies and talents exclusively on building bridges of all kinds and enjoy peaceful hikes on wooden footbridges with their families, friends, and dogs (and okay, cats).






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