KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An explosion on Saturday caused the partial collapse of a bridge connecting the Crimean peninsula to Russia, damaging a major supply artery for the tottering Kremlin war effort in southern Ukraine. Russian authorities said a truck bomb was the cause of the blast, which killed three people.
Speaker of Russia-backed Crimean regional parliament immediately blamed Ukraine for blast; Moscow did not blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge and some hailed the destruction, but Kyiv has not claimed responsibility.
The blast risked a sharp escalation in Russia’s eight-month war, with some Russian lawmakers calling on President Vladimir Putin to declare a ‘counter-terrorism operation’ in retaliation, deleting the term ‘special military operation’ which had downplayed the scale of the attacks. fights for ordinary Russians. .
The Kremlin could use such a move to expand the power of security agencies, ban gatherings, tighten censorship, introduce travel restrictions and expand a partial military mobilization that Putin ordered last month.
Hours after the explosion, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin would command all Russian troops in Ukraine. Surovikin, who over the summer was put 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.
Moscow, however, continues to suffer battlefield casualties.
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 Russian state agency RIA Novosti that young children and their parents, as well as elderly people, could be transferred to two regions in southern Russia because Kherson is “preparing for a difficult time”.
The 19-kilometre (12-mile) long Kerch Bridge over a strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov is a tangible symbol of Moscow’s claims to Crimea and a vital link to the peninsula, which the Russia annexed Ukraine in 2014. The $3.6 billion bridge, the longest in Europe, is vital to supporting Russian military operations in southern Ukraine. Putin himself presided over the opening of the bridge in 2018.
The attack on her “will have a new effort to undermine Russian morale, (and) give an extra boost to Ukraine’s,” said James Nixey of Chatham House, a London think tank. “In theory, the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it by losing a war.”
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a truck bomb set fire to seven wagons carrying fuel, leading to “the partial collapse of two sections of the bridge”. A man and a woman in a vehicle on the bridge were killed, the Russian investigative commission said. He did not specify who the third victim was.
All vehicles crossing the bridge are supposed to undergo state-of-the-art checks for explosives. The truck that exploded belonged to a resident of the Krasnodar region in southern Russia. Russian authorities said the man’s home had been raided and experts were examining the truck’s route.
Rail and car traffic on the bridge has been temporarily suspended. Car traffic resumed on Saturday afternoon on one of two routes that have remained intact since the explosion, with the flow alternating in each direction, Russia-backed Crimean regional chief Sergey Aksyonov wrote on Telegram.
Rail traffic was slowly picking up. Two passenger trains departed from the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol and headed for the bridge on Saturday evening. Passenger ferry connections between Crimea and the Russian mainland were restarted on Sunday.
As Russia seized areas north of Crimea at the start of its invasion of Ukraine and built a land corridor there along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is launching a counter-offensive to recover these lands.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its troops in the south are receiving needed supplies through this corridor and by sea. The Russian Energy Ministry said Crimea had enough fuel for 15 days.
Russian war bloggers responded to the bridge attack with fury, urging Moscow to retaliate by hitting 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 “terrorist 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.
Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, 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 announce a decision by Putin to declare an anti-terrorist operation.
The parliamentary leader of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party did not claim that Kyiv was responsible, but appeared to cause the bridge to explode 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,” said David Arakhamia of the Servant of the People party.
Ukraine’s postal service said it would issue stamps commemorating the explosion, as it did after the sinking of the Moskva, a Russian flagship cruiser, by a Ukrainian strike.
Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov tweeted a video showing the Kerch Bridge on fire and Marilyn Monroe singing her famous song “Happy Birthday Mr. President”. Putin turned 70 on Friday.
In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “the Kyiv regime’s reaction to the destruction of civilian infrastructure shows its terrorist nature.”
Local authorities in Crimea have made conflicting statements about what the damaged bridge will mean for residents. The peninsula is a popular destination for Russian tourists and is home to a naval base. A Russian tourist association estimated that 50,000 tourists were vacationing in Crimea on Saturday.
Elsewhere, the UN nuclear watchdog said Ukraine Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant lost its last remaining external power source to further shelling and now relies on backup diesel generators.
Ukrainian authorities were also just beginning to scrutinize the wreckage of the devastated town of Lyman in eastern Ukraine, assessing the humanitarian toll and the possibility of war crimes after a months-long Russian occupation.
The explosion on the bridge occurred hours after explosions rocked the the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine 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 neighborhoods.
The apartment of Tetiana Samoilenko, a resident of Kharkiv, caught fire during the attack. She was in the kitchen when the explosion hit, sending glass flying.
“Now I have no roof over my head. Now I don’t know what to do next,” the 80-year-old said.
Stepanenko reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Francisco Seco contributed from Kharkiv.