KHARKIV, Ukraine — An explosion caused the partial collapse of a bridge connecting 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 explosion and three people were killed.
The speaker of the Kremlin-backed Crimean regional parliament immediately blamed Ukraine for the explosion, although Moscow did not blame it. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge and some hailed the destruction, but Kyiv has not claimed responsibility.
The bombing came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 70, inflicting a humiliating blow that could see him raise the bar in his war on Ukraine. Hours after the explosion, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin would be the commander of all Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
The statement marked the first formal appointment of a single commander for the entire Russian force in Ukraine. Over the summer, the military announced that Surovikin had been placed in command of Russian troops in southern Ukraine.
In another potential setback for Putin, a Kremlin-backed official in Kherson, one of four regions annexed by Russia in Ukraine, announced a partial evacuation of civilians.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of Russia’s Kherson administration, told Russian state agency RIA Novosti that young children and their parents, as well as elderly people, could be moved to two regions in southern Russia. .
Russian lawmakers called on Putin to declare an “anti-terrorist operation” in response to the attack on the bridge. Such a move could be used by the Kremlin to further expand the powers of security agencies, ban gatherings, tighten censorship, introduce travel restrictions and expand a partial mobilization that Putin ordered last month.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a truck bomb set fire to seven wagons carrying fuel, leading to “partial collapse of two sections of the bridge”. A man and a woman who were riding in a vehicle on the bridge were killed by the blast and their bodies were found, the Russian investigative committee said. He did not provide details about the third victim or what happened to the truck driver.
The explosion occurred even though all vehicles passing through it are subject to automatic explosives checks by state-of-the-art control systems, drawing a flood of critical comments from Russian war bloggers.
The truck that exploded belonged to a resident of the Krasnodar region in southern Russia, the Russian investigative committee said. He said investigators have arrived at his home as part of the investigation and are looking at the truck’s route and other details.
The 19-kilometre (12-mile) bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov opened in 2018 and is the longest in Europe. The $3.6 billion project is a tangible symbol of Moscow’s claims to Crimea and has provided a vital link to the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Crimea has symbolic value for Russia and is essential to maintaining its military operations in southern Ukraine. While Russia seized areas north of Crimea at the start of the invasion and built a land corridor there along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is launching a counter-offensive to reclaim them.
The Russian Defense Ministry said troops in the south were receiving needed supplies by land and sea. Russia’s Energy Ministry said Crimea had enough fuel for 15 days and was working on ways to replenish the stocks.
Rail and car traffic on the bridge has been suspended. Rail traffic would resume on Saturday evening, the Russian Transport Ministry said, and car traffic on one of the two routes that remained intact would resume soon. The ministry said vehicles would drive one way in one direction and the flow would be alternating.
Putin was informed of the explosion and he ordered the creation of a government panel to deal with the emergency.
The speaker of the Kremlin-backed Crimean regional parliament blamed Ukraine for the blast, but downplayed the severity of the damage and said the bridge would be quickly repaired.
Leonid Slutsky, head of the Russian parliament’s lower house foreign affairs committee, said “consequences will be imminent” if Ukraine is responsible.
Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of Russia’s Communist Party, who is nominally in opposition but votes in line with the Kremlin’s wishes in parliament, said the “terror attack” should serve as a wake-up call.
“The long-awaited measures have not yet been taken, the special operation must be transformed into an anti-terrorist operation,” he said.
Sergei Mironov, the leader of the Just Russia faction in parliament, said Russia should respond to the blast at the bridge by attacking key Ukrainian infrastructure, including power plants, bridges and railways.
The statements, especially from Zyuganov and Slutsky, could herald a decision by Putin to declare an anti-terrorist operation.
The parliamentary leader of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party on Saturday refrained from saying that Kyiv was responsible, but appeared to dismiss it following Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.
“Russian illegal construction is starting to collapse and catch fire. The reason is simple: if you build something explosive, it will explode sooner or later,” Servant of the People party leader David Arakhamia wrote on Telegram.
Ukraine’s postal service said it would issue stamps commemorating the explosion as it did after the Moskva, a Russian flagship cruiser, was sunk by a Ukrainian strike in late May.
Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov tweeted a video with the burning Kerch Bridge on the left side and a video with Marilyn Monroe singing her famous “Happy Birthday Mr. President” on the right.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “the Kyiv regime’s reaction to the destruction of civilian infrastructure shows its terrorist nature.”
In August, Russia suffered a series of explosions at an airbase and an ammunition depot in Crimea, underscoring its vulnerability.
Local authorities in Crimea have made conflicting statements about what the damaged bridge would mean for residents and their ability to buy consumer goods on the peninsula, a popular year-round destination for Russian tourists that is home to Sevastopol, a city key and a naval base.
The Association of Russian Tourist Agencies estimated that around 50,000 tourists were vacationing in Crimea at the time of the blast.
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has lost its last external power source to renewed bombardment and now relies on backup diesel generators, the UN nuclear watchdog said.
The blast at the bridge came hours after blasts rocked the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv early Saturday, sending towering plumes of smoke into the sky and triggering a series of thunderstorms. secondary explosions.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of pounding Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, with surface-to-air missiles and said at least one person was injured. The strikes targeted two largely residential neighborhoods, regional governor Oleh Sinehubov said on Telegram.
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