An explosion caused the partial collapse of a bridge linking the Crimean peninsula with Russia on Saturday, damaging a key supply artery for the The vacillating war of the Kremlin effort in southern Ukraine. Russian authorities said a truck bomb caused the blast and that three people were killed.
Images on social media on Saturday showed the Kerch Bridge, which has sections for trains and cars, on fire. The railway bridge was on fire and a section of the parallel highway bridge collapsed into the sea.
The attack came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 70, dealing him a humiliating blow that could lead him to up the ante in his war against Ukraine. A military analyst called it a punch in the face for Putin on his birthday, reports Charlie D’Agata of CBS News.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Saturday night to strengthen the security of the Kerch Bridge and energy infrastructure between Crimea and Russia. Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, was in charge of the effort, according to a Kremlin statement.
The president of the Russian-backed regional parliament in Crimea blamed Ukraine for the attack, but Moscow did not share the blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to attack the bridge, with some praising Saturday’s destruction. But Kyiv stopped short of claiming responsibility.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a video address, indirectly acknowledged the bridge attack when speaking about the weather in Crimea, but did not address its cause.
“Today was a good and mostly sunny day on the territory of our state,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was cloudy in Crimea.”
He said that Ukraine wants a future “without occupants. In all our territory, in particular in Crimea.”
The speaker of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed regional parliament immediately blamed Ukraine, though the Kremlin did not apportion blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to attack the bridge and some have praised the attack, but Kyiv has not claimed responsibility.
The blast risked a sharp escalation in Russia’s eight-month war, with some Russian lawmakers calling on Putin to declare an “anti-terrorist operation” in retaliation, removing the term “special military operation” that had downplayed the scope of the fight for common Russians.
The Kremlin could use such a move to further expand the powers of security agencies, ban demonstrations, tighten censorship, introduce travel restrictions and expand a partial military mobilization that Putin ordered last month.
Hours after the explosion, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the head of the air force, General Sergei Surovikin, would be named commander of all Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. It was the first official appointment of a single commander for all Russian forces in Ukraine.
Surovikin had led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of the city of Aleppo.
The Kerch Bridge was opened in 2018 and is a tangible symbol of Moscow’s claims to Crimea. It has provided an essential link to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The $3.6 billion bridge, the longest in Europe, is vital to sustaining Russia’s military operations in southern Ukraine. Putin himself presided over the opening of the bridge in 2018.
The attack “will further undermine Russian morale, (and) give Ukraine an additional boost,” said James Nixey of Chatham House, a London think tank. “The Russians may be able to rebuild it, but they can’t defend it while losing a war.”
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said the truck bomb caused seven rail cars carrying fuel to catch fire, resulting in a “partial collapse of two sections of the bridge”. A man and a woman who were traveling in a vehicle crossing the bridge were killed by the blast, the Russian Investigative Committee said. He did not provide details about the third victim or what happened to the truck driver.
The blast occurred despite all vehicles crossing the bridge undergoing explosive checks by state-of-the-art control systems, prompting a series of critical comments from Russian war bloggers who urged Moscow to take retaliation by attacking Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.
The truck that exploded was owned by a resident of the Krasnodar region in southern Russia. The Russian Investigative Committee said investigators searched the man’s house and were observing the route of the truck.
Train and automobile traffic on the bridge was temporarily suspended. Car traffic resumed on Saturday afternoon on one of the two links that remained intact since the explosion, with flow alternating in each direction and vehicles undergoing a “full inspection procedure,” the regional leader wrote on Telegram. Russian-backed Crimean Sergey Aksyonov.
Rail traffic was slowly resuming. Two passenger trains left the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol and headed for the bridge on Saturday night. Passenger ferry links between Crimea and the Russian mainland were relaunched on Sunday.
The Russian Defense Ministry said troops in the south were receiving necessary supplies through the land corridor along the Sea of Azov and by sea. The Russian Energy Ministry said that Crimea has enough fuel for 15 days.
Putin was informed about the explosion and ordered the creation of a government panel to deal with the emergency.
Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party, said the “terrorist attack” should serve as a wake-up call. “The special operation must become an anti-terrorist operation,” he declared.
Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said “the consequences will be imminent” if Ukraine is responsible. And Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia faction, said Russia should respond by attacking Ukraine’s key infrastructure, including power plants, bridges and railways.
Such statements may herald a decision by Putin to declare an anti-terrorist operation.
The parliamentary leader of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party stopped short of saying Kyiv was responsible, but called the bridge explosion a consequence of Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.
“Russian illegal construction is starting to crumble and catch fire. The reason is simple: if you build something explosive, sooner or later it will explode,” said David Arakhamia of the Servant of the People party.
The Ukrainian postal service announced that it would issue stamps commemorating the explosion, as it did after the sinking of the Moskva, a Russian flagship, by a Ukrainian attack.
Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov tweeted a video with the Kerch Bridge on fire and Marilyn Monroe singing her song “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”
In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “the Kyiv regime’s reaction to the destruction of civilian infrastructure shows its terrorist nature.”
Local authorities in Crimea made conflicting statements about what the damaged bridge would mean for residents. The peninsula is a popular destination for Russian tourists and is home to a Russian naval base. A Russian tourist association estimated that 50,000 tourists were in Crimea on vacation on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Moscow continues to suffer losses on the battlefield.
On Saturday, a Kremlin-backed official in Ukraine’s Kherson region announced a partial evacuation of civilians from the southern province, one of four illegally annexed by Moscow last week. Kirill Stremousov told the Russian state agency RIA Novosti that young children and the elderly could be relocated because Kherson was “preparing for a difficult period”.