An explosion caused the partial collapse of a bridge linking the Crimean Peninsula with Russia on Saturday, damaging a key supply artery for the Kremlin’s faltering war effort in southern Ukraine. Russian authorities said a truck bomb caused the blast and that three people were killed.
Images on social media Saturday showed the Kerch Bridge, which has train and automobile sections, in flames. The railway bridge was ablaze and a section of the parallel road bridge collapsed into the sea.
The bombing 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 on Ukraine. One military analyst called it a punch in the face for Putin on his birthday, CBS News’ Charlie D’Agata reports.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree late Saturday tightening security for the Kerch Bridge and for energy infrastructure between Crimea and Russia. Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, was put in charge of the effort, according to a Kremlin statement.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a video address, indirectly acknowledged the attack on the bridge by talking 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 Ukraine wants a future “without occupiers. Throughout our territory, in particular in Crimea.”
The speaker of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed regional parliament immediately accused Ukraine, though the Kremlin didn’t apportion blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge and some lauded the attack, but Kyiv stopped short of claiming responsibility.
The explosion risked a sharp escalation in Russia’s eight-month war, with some Russian lawmakers calling for Putin to declare a “counterterrorism operation” in retaliation, shedding the term “special military operation” that had downplayed the scope of fighting to ordinary Russians.
Such a move could be used by the Kremlin to further broaden the powers of security agencies, ban rallies, tighten censorship, introduce restrictions on travel and expand a partial military mobilization that Putin ordered last month.
Hours after the explosion, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that the air force chief, Gen. 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 opened in 2018 and is a tangible symbol of Moscow’s claims on 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 bridge’s opening in 2018.
The attack on it “will have a further sapping effort on Russian morale, (and) will give an extra boost to Ukraine’s,” said James Nixey of Chatham House, a think tank in London. “Conceivably the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it while losing a war.”
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said the truck bomb caused seven railway cars carrying fuel to catch fire, resulting in a “partial collapse of two sections of the bridge.” A man and a woman riding in a vehicle across the bridge were killed by the explosion, Russia’s Investigative Committee said. It didn’t provide details on the third victim or what happened to the truck driver.
The blast occurred even though all vehicles crossing the bridge undergo checks for explosives by state-of-the-art control systems, drawing a stream of critical comments from Russian war bloggers who urged Moscow to retaliate by striking Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.
The truck that exploded was owned by a resident of the Krasnodar region in southern Russia. Russia’s Investigative Committee said investigators searched the man’s home and were looking at the truck’s route.
Train and automobile traffic over the bridge was temporarily suspended. Automobile traffic resumed Saturday afternoon on one of the two links that remained intact from the blast, with the flow alternating in each direction and vehicles undergoing a “full inspection procedure,” Crimea’s Russia-backed regional leader, Sergey Aksyonov, wrote on Telegram.
Rail traffic was resuming slowly. Two passenger trains departed from the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol and headed toward the bridge Saturday evening. Passenger ferry links between Crimea and the Russian mainland were being relaunched 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. Russia’s Energy Ministry said Crimea has enough fuel for 15 days.
Putin was informed about the explosion and he ordered the creation of a government panel to deal with the emergency.
Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party, said the “terror attack” should serve as a wake-up call. “The special operation must be turned into a counterterrorist operation,” he declared.
Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s lower house, said “consequences will be imminent” if Ukraine was responsible. And Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia faction, said Russia should respond by attacking key Ukrainian infrastructure, including power plants, bridges and railways.
Such statements may herald a decision by Putin to declare a counterterrorism operation.
The parliamentary leader of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party stopped short of claiming that Kyiv was responsible, but cast the bridge explosion as a consequence of Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.
“Russian illegal construction is starting to fall apart and catch fire. The reason is simple: If you build something explosive, then sooner or later it will explode,” said David Arakhamia of the Servant of the People party.
The Ukrainian postal service announced it would issue stamps commemorating the blast, as it did after the sinking of the Moskva, a Russian flagship cruiser, by a Ukrainian strike.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted a video with the Kerch Bridge on fire and Marilyn Monroe singing her “Happy Birthday Mr. President” song.
In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “the reaction of the Kyiv regime 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 home to a Russian naval base. A Russian tourist association estimated that 50,000 tourists were in Crimea on vacation on Saturday.