KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine — An explosion ripped through the only bridge linking Russian-occupied Crimea with Russia, collapsing part of the span into the sea and jeopardizing a main supply route for Russian troops fighting in southern Ukraine. Ukraine.
The 12-mile-long Kerch Strait Bridge is a prized political project of President Vladimir V. Putin and has become a potent symbol of Putin’s claims to the peninsula, which his forces illegally seized from Ukraine in 2014. Mr. Putin presided over the opening of the bridge in 2018personally driving a truck through.
The extent of the damage was difficult to assess immediately, although any impediment to traffic on the bridge could have a profound effect on Russia’s ability to wage war in southern Ukraine. Videos showed the railway in flames and two of the highway’s four lanes collapsing into the Black Sea, where waves lapped the asphalt.
The Russian Railways company said all trains to and from Crimea were temporarily cancelled, the state news agency Tass reported.
The bridge is the main military supply route linking Russia with the Crimean peninsula. Without it, the Russian military will be severely limited in its ability to deliver fuel, equipment and ammunition to its units fighting an intensifying battle for control of southern Ukraine. Russia still controls the roads on the land routes from Russia to southern Ukraine, but they are within range of Ukrainian rocket artillery.
The peninsula also has a special meaning for Putin, who has told his people that Crimea is a “sacred place” and the “holy land” of Russia.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said in a statement that a truck exploded on the bridge, setting fire to seven fuel tankers being pulled by a train at a parallel rail crossing heading to Crimea and causing two carriages to partially collapse. Preliminary information suggested three people were killed, Russia’s investigative committee said in a statement.
While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, Russian and Ukrainian officials indicated that the fire was not an accident.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov referred to the episode as an “emergency” in a statement on Saturday, without assessing who was behind it. He said that Putin, who had celebrated his 70th birthday on Friday, had been informed.
“The president ordered the prime minister to form a government commission to find out the causes of the incident and eliminate the consequences as soon as possible,” Peskov said, according to Russian state media.
Occupation officials in Crimea left little doubt as to who they believed was responsible.
“Ukrainian hooligans were able to get to the Crimean bridge with bloody hands,” said Vladimir Konstantinov, head of the parliament installed in the Crimean Kremlin. Multiple Ukrainian officials and government agencies insinuated, often cunningly, that Ukraine was responsible. Since the beginning of the war, Kyiv has maintained a policy of ambiguity about attacks against Russian territory and some attacks on occupied territory.
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning,” Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the President of Ukraine, wrote on Twitter. “Everything illegal must be destroyed. Everything stolen returned to Ukraine.”
In a nod to claim credit, the Security Service of Ukraine, known by its Ukrainian acronym SBU, issued a statement as a reworded stanza of a poem by the country’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko. “Dawn, the bridge is burning beautifully,” the agency posted on Twitter. “A nightingale in Crimea meets the SBU”
A senior Ukrainian military official did not deny that Ukrainian forces were behind the attack, but did not confirm it.
“All I can say is that a step with fuel intended to supply the occupation forces in southern Ukraine was passing over the bridge,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media. Communication. .
As a symbol of Putin’s claim to Ukrainian land, the bridge has been closely tied to political messages from the Russian president at home. However, its partial destruction could sway Putin’s claims that Russia is under attack by a Western-armed Ukraine and help quell domestic opposition to Russia’s first wartime draft since World War II. Ukrainian officials have said they are concerned that hitting the bridge could galvanize Russian support for the war.
In recent weeks, military traffic crossing the bridge into Crimea has increased as Russia has brought tanks and artillery equipment to the frontlines in the Kherson region, which has been the focus of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against the Russian military. Russian troops have been in retreat, abandoning towns and villages and moving back towards the regional capital, Kherson.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.