Black smoke billows from a fire on the Kerch bridge, on October 8. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Kremlin is intent on showing the attack on the Crimea bridge wasn’t that serious and that the crucial lifeline from the Russian mainland to the illegally-annexed Crimean Peninsula will be back to normal soon.

The physical damage can be restored — Russia immediately dispatched a large emergency team to the site — but the damage to Russia’s prestige and, more importantly, to the image of Vladimir Putin, won’t be that easy to repair. 

This is his bridge, his project, built with the equivalent of almost $4 billion from the Russian treasury. It’s a symbolic “wedding band” uniting Mother Russia and Ukraine, or at least a region that still legally belongs to Ukraine, crucial not only to Putin’s war effort but to his obsession with bringing Ukraine back under Russia’s control.

Putin’s February 21st address to the Russian people, delivered just before he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, laid bare his warped view of history. Ukraine, he insists, is not really an independent country: “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us,” he claimed. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” 

That speech, one of the most revealing of his presidency, makes clear that this fratricidal war against Ukraine is very personal to him. For many years he has been fixated on Peter the Great, the Russian czar who founded St. Petersburg, the city in which Putin was born and raised. I once visited the city administration office in which Putin worked in the early 1990s after he returned from his job as a KGB operative in East Germany. On the wall above his desk was a portrait of Peter the Great.

In June of this year, as the grinding war in Ukraine entered its fourth month, Putin again compared himself to Peter the Great, insisting that Peter, who conquered land from Sweden, was “returning” to Russia what actually belonged to it.

Putin now, apparently, believes that returning Ukraine to Russia is his historic destiny. He likely sees the galling attack on the Crimea bridge not only as an attack on the Russian homeland, but as a personal affront. And he is likely to respond viciously.  

Already, a day after the attack, Russian forces are bombing civilian apartment buildings in Ukraine. Hardline supporters of Putin are urging more strikes on Ukraine’s infrastructure. Western leaders warn that an increasingly frustrated Putin might resort to using tactical nuclear weapons. Military experts say he could retaliate asymmetrically, striking unexpected targets.

For years, Putin has had another obsession: punishing traitors. One month after his forces attacked Ukraine, he threatened to retaliate against any Russians who opposed the war, calling them “fifth column … national traitors” in thrall to the West.

This Sunday, the day after the bridge bombing, he called it a “terrorist attack” whose “authors, executors and masterminds” are the secret services of Ukraine…and “citizens of Russia from foreign countries.”

One thing is clear: as the fighting moves closer to Russia, Vladimir Putin sees his “historic mission” in jeopardy. And that means emotions could outweigh reason. For Ukraine, for Russians who oppose the war, and for the world, this is a dangerous moment.

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