Blast damages prestige Crimea bridge crucial to Russia’s Ukraine war
KYIV — A powerful explosion seriously damaged Russia’s road-and-rail bridge to Crimea on Saturday, hitting a prestige symbol of Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula and the key supply route to Russian forces battling to hold territory captured in southern Ukraine.
The blast on the bridge over the Kerch Strait, for which Russia did not immediately assign blame, prompted gleeful messages from Ukrainian officials but no direct claim of responsibility.
Russian officials said three people had been killed, probably the occupants of a car traveling near a truck that blew up.
Despite the damage, limited road traffic resumed about 10 hours after the blast, and the Transport Ministry said it expected rail traffic to restart later in the day.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the 19-km (12-mile) Crimean Bridge linking it to Russia’s transport network was opened with great fanfare four years later by President Vladimir Putin.
It now represents a major artery for the Russian forces who have taken control of most of southern Ukraine’s Kherson region, and for the naval port of Sevastopol, whose governor told locals: “Keep calm. Don’t panic.”
It was not yet clear if the blast was a deliberate attack, but the damage to such high-profile infrastructure came at a time when Russia has suffered several battlefield defeats and could further cloud the Kremlin’s messages of reassurance to its public that the conflict is going to plan.
It also took place a day after Putin’s 70th birthday, and coincided with the naming of Air Force General Sergei Surovikin, Russia’s third senior military appointment in the space of a week, to take overall charge of the invasion effort.
‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR PRESIDENT’
The head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, posted a video of the burning bridge on social media alongside a video of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy birthday, Mr President.”
Since the start of the invasion on Feb. 24, Ukrainian officials have made regular allusions to their desire to destroy the bridge, seen in Ukraine as a symbol of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Ukraine’s postal service said on Saturday it would print a special stamp to commemorate the blast.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said in a statement that its forces in southern Ukraine could be “fully supplied” through existing land and sea routes.
The Transport Ministry said road traffic for light vehicles and buses had resumed in alternating directions on the intact half of the roadway. Goods vehicles were being referred to a ferry service.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Kyiv’s reaction to the destruction of civilian infrastructure “testifies to its terrorist nature.”
The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a freight truck had blown up on the bridge’s roadway at 6:07 a.m. (0307 GMT), causing seven fuel tanker wagons to catch fire on a train heading for the peninsula on the bridge’s upper level.
It said two spans of road bridge had partially collapsed, but that the arch spanning the channel through which ships travel between the Black Sea and Azov Sea was not damaged.
Images posted by the Russian Investigative Committee showed one half of the roadway blown away, and the other half still attached. Others taken from a distance showed thick smoke pouring from part of the bridge.
An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy posted a message on Twitter saying the incident was just “the beginning” but stopped short of saying Ukrainian forces were responsible for the blast.
“Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything that is stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled,” Mykhailo Podolyak wrote.
Moscow has presented largely Russian-speaking Crimea as a historic and cherished part of Russia and, especially this year, one where its citizens could holiday in large numbers, supposedly safe from the war.
Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy administrator of the Kherson region, said the bridge incident “will not affect army supply very much.”
“But there will be problems with logistics for Crimea,” he added in a post on social media.
Mykola Bielieskov of the Ukrainian Institute of Strategic Studies, which advises the presidency in Kyiv, said the bridge was irreplaceable for Russia’s invasion forces.
Although Russian troops have seized a stretch of coastal Ukraine linking the Kherson region and Crimea to Russia, Bielieskov said the transport connections there were poor, and that Russia had preferred to send reinforcements to Kherson along the more circuitous route of the bridge into Crimea.
James Nixey, Russia expert at the British-based Chatham House think tank, said: “The bridge was always going to be a target, either from covert operations or U.S.-supplied longer-range artillery systems.”
“Conceivably the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it while losing a war,” he added.
In a video message, Sergei Aksyonov, the Russian governor of Crimea, said he wanted to “assure Crimeans that the Republic of Crimea is fully provided with fuel and food. We have more than a month’s worth of fuel, and more than two months’ worth of food.”
The Russian governor of Sevastopol, which has separate territorial status in Crimea as home to the Black Sea Fleet, also sought to reassure locals.
“We are not cut off from the mainland!” Mikhail Razvozzhayev posted on Telegram. “Keep calm. Don’t panic.”
(Reporting by Reuters Editing by Kevin Liffey, Frances Kerry and Nick Macfie)
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