Russian divers are preparing to examine the damage caused by a huge explosion on Russia’s road-and-rail bridge to Crimea, which is a major supply link for the annexed territory as well as Moscow’s armed forces in southern Ukraine.
Saturday’s blast on the bridge over the Kerch Strait, for which Russia did not immediately assign blame, prompted gleeful messages from Ukrainian officials but no claim of responsibility.
Russian news agencies quoted Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin as saying the divers would start work at 6am (03:00 GMT), with a more detailed survey above the waterline expected to be complete by the end of the day.
“The situation is manageable – it’s unpleasant, but not fatal,” Crimea’s Russian governor, Sergei Aksyonov, told reporters. “Of course, emotions have been triggered and there is a healthy desire to seek revenge.”
The peninsula had a month’s worth of fuel and more than two months’ worth of food, he said. Russia’s defence ministry said its forces in southern Ukraine could be “fully supplied” through existing land and sea routes.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 — a move denounced as illegal and illegitimate by Western powers — and President Vladimir Putin opened the 19km (12-mile) bridge linking the region to Russia with great fanfare four years later.
The bridge is a crucial artery for Russian forces that control most of southern Ukraine’s Kherson region and for the Russian 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 explosion came as Ukraine continued to reclaim territory in a counteroffensive that has put Russian forces under severe pressure.
The Institute for the Study of War said fierce fighting was taking place in the east, where Ukraine has liberated tracts of its territory since the start of September, and also in the south, where Ukrainian forces were making advances into Russian-occupied areas.
Putin signed a decree on Saturday instructing tighter security for the bridge as well as the infrastructure supplying electricity and natural gas to Crimea and ordered an investigation.
“Conceivably the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it while losing a war,” said political analyst James Nixey of Britain’s Chatham House think tank.
Russian officials said three people had been killed, probably the occupants of a car travelling near a truck that blew up. On the bridge’s upper level, seven fuel tanker wagons of a 59-wagon train heading for the peninsula also caught fire.
Limited road traffic resumed about 10 hours after the explosion, and Russia’s transport ministry cleared rail traffic to restart.
‘Future without occupiers’
The Kerch bridge blast came a day after Putin’s 70th birthday and coincided with Russia’s appointment of General Sergey Surovikin to lead the war in Ukraine, the third senior military appointment in a week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not refer to the blast in a video address on Saturday, saying merely that the weather in Crimea was cloudy.
“But however cloudy it is, Ukrainians know … our future is sunny,” he added. “This is a future without occupiers, across our territory, particularly in Crimea.”
The head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council posted a video of the bridge on social media alongside a video of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy birthday, Mr President”.
Since Russia invaded the country on February 24, Ukrainian officials have regularly suggested they want to destroy the bridge. Ukraine’s postal service said it would print a special stamp.
“Undoubtedly, we are witnessing the beginning of large-scale negative processes in Russia,” Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a commentary, blaming infighting among Putin’s circle as he attributed the blast to Russian operators.
Russian 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 truck had blown up on the bridge’s roadway at 6:07am (03:07 GMT) on Saturday. 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 had not been damaged.
Emergencies Minister Alexander Kurenkov told state news agency TASS that quick-thinking railway workers who uncoupled the burning fuel wagons had kept the blaze from spreading.
Images showed half of the roadway blown away, with the other half still attached.
Authorities said they had identified the owner of the truck as a resident of Russia’s southern Krasnodar region, adding that his home was being searched.
Mick Ryan, a retired Australian major general now with the Washington, DC-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that even if Ukrainians were not behind the blast, it constituted “a massive influence operation win for Ukraine”.
“It is a demonstration to Russians, and the rest of the world, that Russia’s military cannot protect any of the provinces it recently annexed,” he wrote on Twitter.
Putin announced at the end of last month that Russia had formally annexed four territories in Ukraine’s east and south, following hastily-organised referendums in the occupied regions that Kyiv, the United Nations and Western powers said were illegal.