Crimea bridge blast prompts Putin to tighten security for links to Russia

An explosion Saturday caused the partial collapse of a bridge linking the Crimean Peninsula with Russia, damaging an important supply artery for the Kremlin's faltering war effort in southern Ukraine and hitting a towering symbol of Russian power in the region.

Blast damages key supply route for Kremlin's war in southern Ukraine

Black smoke can be seen on Saturday billowing from the Kerch Bridge, which links Crimea to Russia, after a truck exploded as a train was crossing the rail and road crossing. (AFP/Getty Images)

An explosion on Saturday caused the partial collapse of a bridge linking the Crimean Peninsula with Russia, damaging a key supply artery for the Kremlin's faltering war effort in southern Ukraine and hitting a towering symbol of Russian power in the region.

Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed three people. The Speaker of the Russian-backed regional parliament in Crimea accused Ukraine, but Moscow didn't apportion blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge, and some lauded the destruction on Saturday, but Kyiv stopped short of claiming responsibility.

The explosion, which Russian authorities said was caused by a truck bomb, risked a sharp escalation in Russia's eight-month war, with some Russian lawmakers calling for President Vladimir Putin to declare a "counterterrorism operation" in retaliation — shedding the term "special military operation" that had downplayed the scope of fighting to ordinary Russians.

A helicopter drops water on burning fuel tanks next to damaged sections of the Kerch Bridge in Crimea's Kerch Strait on Saturday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Putin signed a decree late Saturday tightening security for the bridge and for energy infrastructure between Crimea and Russia, and he put Russia's federal security service, the FSB, in charge of the effort.

Hours after the explosion, Russia's Defence Ministry announced that the air force chief, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, would command all Russian troops in Ukraine. Surovikin, who over the summer was placed in charge of troops in southern Ukraine, had led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of the city of Aleppo.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin is shown at a Russian Defence Ministry briefing in Moscow in June 2017, when he was commander of Russian forces in Syria. He has been appointed commander of all Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

Moscow, however, continues to suffer battlefield losses.

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 Russia's state-run RIA Novosti agency that young children and their parents, as well as the elderly, could be relocated to two southern Russian regions because Kherson was getting "ready for a difficult period."

Essential link

The 19-kilometre Kerch Bridge, on a strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, is a symbol of Moscow's claims on Crimea and an essential link to the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The $3.6-billion US 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."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a video address, indirectly acknowledged the attack on the bridge 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. Although it is also warm."

Zelenskyy said Ukraine wants a future "without occupiers. Throughout our territory, in particular in Crimea."

He also said Ukrainian forces advanced or held the line in the east and south, but acknowledged "very, very difficult, very tough fighting" around the city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have claimed recent gains.

Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a truck bomb caused seven railway cars carrying fuel to catch fire, resulting in a "partial collapse of two sections of the bridge."

A couple riding in a vehicle on the bridge were killed, Russia's Investigative Committee said. It didn't say who the third victim was.

WATCH | Explosion damages bridge to Crimea:

Explosion damages bridge to Crimea that's vital to Russia's war efforts

4 months ago
Duration 5:34
A huge explosion has partially destroyed the Kerch Bridge, which links mainland Russia with Crimea and is a key supply artery for the Kremlin's faltering war effort in southern Ukraine.

All vehicles crossing the bridge are supposed to undergo state-of-the-art checks for explosives. The truck that exploded was owned by a resident of the Krasnodar region, in southern Russia. Russian authorities said the man's home was searched and experts 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, with the flow alternating in each direction, said Crimea's Russia-backed regional leader, Sergey Aksyonov.

People wait for the ferry in their cars after a truck exploded and heavily damaged the Kerch Bridge, which links Crimea to Russia, near Kerch, on Saturday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Rail traffic was resuming slowly. Two passenger trains left the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol and headed toward the bridge on Saturday evening. Passenger ferry links between Crimea and the Russian mainland were being relaunched on Sunday.

While Russia seized areas north of Crimea early during its invasion of Ukraine and built a land corridor to it along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is pressing a counteroffensive to reclaim those lands.

The Russian Defence Ministry said its troops in the south were receiving necessary supplies through that corridor and by sea.

War bloggers demand payback

Russian war bloggers responded to the bridge attack with fury, urging Moscow to retaliate by striking Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. Putin 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 long-overdue measures haven't been taken yet, the special operation must be turned into a counterterrorist operation," he said.

People in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, take selfies on Saturday, in front of an image depicting Crimea's Kerch Bridge in flames. (Vladyslav Musiienko/Reuters)

Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament's lower house, said that "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.

Such statements may herald a decision by Putin to declare a counterterrorism operation.

The parliamentary leader of Zelenskyy's party cast the 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 Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, posted a video on Twitter with the Kerch Bridge on fire and Marilyn Monroe singing her famous Happy Birthday Mr. President song. Putin turned 70 on Friday.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that "the reaction of the Kyiv regime to the destruction of civilian infrastructure shows its terrorist nature."

The Crimean Peninsula is a popular destination for Russian tourists and home to a naval base. A Russian tourist association estimated that 50,000 tourists were in Crimea on Saturday.

Ukraine-bound rockets are launched from Russia's Belgorod region, as seen in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Vadim Belikov/The Associated Press)

Elsewhere, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has lost its last remaining external power source as a result of renewed shelling and is now relying on emergency diesel generators.

Ukrainian authorities were also just beginning to sift through the wreckage of the devastated city of Lyman in Eastern Ukraine, assessing the humanitarian toll and the possibility of war crimes after a months-long Russian occupation.

"Some people died in their houses, some people died in the streets, and the bodies are now being sent to experts for examination," said Mark Tkachenko of the Kramatorsk district police.

Explosions also rocked the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv early Saturday, sending towering plumes of smoke into the sky and triggering secondary explosions. Ukrainian officials accused Russia of pounding Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, with surface-to-air missiles in two largely residential neighbourhoods.

A woman is helped by a Ukrainian firefighter as they leave a shelter after Russian shelling in Kharkiv early Saturday. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)