Satellite images show Russia is putting ships in the path of Ukraine's naval drones to protect Putin's prize, but it's likely not enough

  • Ukraine has vowed to destroy the strategic Kerch Bridge linking Russia to occupied Crimea.

  • Russia has attempted to protect the bridge with barges and floating boom defenses.

  • But Ukraine has demonstrated that it can innovate and adapt to defensive measures in the Black Sea.

Russia has placed barges and other defenses around a major bridge connecting it to the occupied Crimean Peninsula, recent satellite images show. The efforts appear to be a bid to protect the structure from Ukraine's vaunted fleet of exploding naval drones.

The Kerch Bridge — Russian President Vladimir Putin's prized accomplishment and a symbol of the Kremlin's desire to maintain its grip on Crimea forever — has already fallen victim to several high-profile Ukrainian attacks, including a naval drone strike.

Past efforts to protect the bridge have been ineffective, and as Ukraine continues to innovate with its highly effective naval drone programs, Russia's new defensive barriers may not be enough to prevent further attacks.

Britain's defense ministry said recently that Russia started placing barges as barriers on the southern side of the 12-mile-long bridge, which connects Russia to Crimea and facilitates military and economic activity, in early May. Satellite imagery captured May 23 and published by the UK government revealed multiple barges in place.

The defense ministry said in a June 8 intelligence update that "these barges were placed by Russian forces in an attempt to defend the bridge and shipping channel, reducing the angles of approach for Ukrainian unmanned surface vehicles." It added that the "previously installed barriers have been damaged by storms, reducing their effectiveness."

Satellite imagery captured on May 23 shows eight barges on the southern side of the Kerch bridge.
Eight barges could be seen parallel to the southern side of the Kerch Bridge in May 23 imagery.UK Ministry of Defense

By June 8, more than two weeks after the images were taken, the protective measures had swelled to include several additional barges and floating boom defenses that run parallel to the bridge, according to satellite imagery captured by Maxar Technologies and then obtained by Business Insider.

To allow for ships to pass through the defenses and under the bridge, the barges give way to an opening, and the floating booms curve inward toward the structure underneath its arch.

Additional defenses can be seen in place on June 8.
Floating boom defenses and additional barges could be seen in imagery from June 8.Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies.

Whether these new defenses are able to effectively prevent Ukraine's naval drones remains to be seen.

But the Ukrainians tend to adapt and find ways to attack Russia's assets at sea even as Moscow develops measures to protect them, said Brady Africk, an open-source-intelligence analyst who is an associate at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

"These barriers complicate the equation, but it is still a solvable one," said Africk, who has chronicled the development of the defenses over the past few weeks.

Ukraine has repeatedly vowed to destroy the bridge because it is used as a supply and logistics route for the Russian military in Crimea and also because it represents Moscow's illegal annexation and continued occupation of the peninsula. Kyiv's ambitions have been underscored by multiple attacks on the site over the past two years.

But a Ukrainian navy spokesperson said destroying the bridge now wouldn't be as effective as it would have been earlier in the conflict because Russia is relying on it less frequently to help sustain its war efforts in Crimea.

The lengthy bridge accounts for less than a quarter of all transiting cargo, Dmytro Pletenchuk told local media this week. To help sustain its military presence in Crimea, Russia has been using ferry crossings. Ukraine, notably, has shown that it can also target these operations, highlighting Kyiv's ability to adapt.

Kerch bridge
A Russian warship near the Kerch Bridge on July 17.STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

"Ukraine is very comfortable with innovating past Russia's defenses and finding new ways to strike targets in occupied territory," Africk said.

Ukraine has made numerous upgrades and improvements to its naval drones since they were used against the bridge last summer.

The modifications made to them include giving the vessels larger warheads, increasing their ranges, and outfitting them with missiles and rockets, reflecting a push from Kyiv to make its drone fleet even more of a problem for Russia.

The naval drones have already been used to wreak havoc on Moscow's Black Sea Fleet, damaging and destroying a number of warships, at least two dozen by the Pentagon's count.

A Sea Baby drone.
A Sea Baby drone.UNITED24/Ukrainian government

Given the threat, Russia has turned to barges and floating boom defenses to protect other high-profile sites around the Black Sea and Crimea, including at the ports of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk. It has also sunk ships and used smoke generators to help safeguard the Kerch Bridge.

These are relatively cost-effective ways to add an extra layer of protection to a site as valuable as a warship port or a strategic bridge — compared with more kinetic options like constant aircraft patrols of the waterway — but they aren't necessarily the most reliable.

"In terms of constructing defenses and defending key assets, I think Russia has realized that where they can't excel in quality of defenses, they should try and invest in quantity," Africk said. "We see that with these barges that are protecting" the bridge.

Read the original article on Business Insider