Amid Ukrainian taunts, Russia scrambles to salvage Crimean Bridge after fiery explosion

REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak
A car drives on a bridge, which is constructed to connect the Russian mainland with the Crimean peninsula, in the Kerch Strait, Crimea April 3, 2019.

KYIV, Ukraine – A giant explosion ripped across the Crimean Bridge, a strategic link between mainland Russia and Crimea, in what appeared to be a stunning blow early Saturday to a symbol of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to control Ukraine.

The damage to the bridge, which provided a road and rail connection between Russia and the Ukrainian peninsula that the Kremlin illegally annexed in 2014, is a setback to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, disrupting a crucial supply route and prompting new criticism, in public, about Putin’s handling of the war. Alexander Kots, a pro-Kremlin correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda, urged the country’s commanders to emulate Ukraine’s war-fighting philosophy: “Nothing is impossible,” he wrote, “the Ukrainians show us.”

While limited vehicle and rail traffic resumed hours after the explosion, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged the government had no timeline for restoring the 12-mile bridge to a fully operational status.

The bridge explosion follows weeks of bad news for Russians about Ukrainian military successes, including the liberation of Russian-occupied territory even as Putin illegally annexed it and open protests about Putin’s mass mobilization, which has prompted thousands of men to hurriedly flee the country.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, a top law enforcement body, said a truck explosion ignited fuel tankers as a freight train crossed the bridge. The cause of the truck blast was not immediately clear. After the explosion, thick plumes of smoke and flames could be seen from a distance, while concrete bridge spans hung into the water below.

Putin in 2018 personally inaugurated the $4 billion bridge, also known as the Kerch Bridge because it spans the Kerch Strait between the Black and Azov seas. The commissioning of the bridge was intended to symbolize Russia’s ownership of Crimea.

Russia’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 turned out to be a precursor to the invasion Putin launched this year, in which the peninsula has been used as a major base of operations for Russian forces. Russia has claimed to have annexed four other Ukrainian regions.

The blast was celebrated in Kyiv, where government officials posted footage on social media of the apparent moment of the blast, showing vehicles driving across the bridge just seconds before a giant fireball consumed the area.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, called it “the beginning.” “Everything illegal must be destroyed,” Podolyak added on Twitter. The Ukrainian government provided no immediate official statement on the cause of the blast. But in a taunt, the government’s official Twitter account posted: “sick burn.”

Ukrainian commanders had publicly promised to attack the bridge as recently as June. And a Ukrainian government official told The Washington Post on Saturday that Ukrainian special services were behind the bridge attack. The Ukrainska Pravda news site first reported the government’s purported role, citing an unidentified law enforcement official who said Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, was involved.

Ukraine previously mounted daring attacks deep in Russian-held territory, including on an air base in Crimea and on military targets across the border in Russia’s Belgorod region. But if the bridge explosion is confirmed to have been planned, it would be the most stunning strike yet by Ukraine, which has been under invasion since late February by Russia’s far larger and better-equipped military.

Russian authorities said the blast occurred around 6 a.m. local time. A video posted by government newspaper Izvestia appeared to show it at 6:03 a.m. Initial information suggested three people had been killed, including the driver of the truck that appeared to explode and two people whose bodies were recovered from the water, the Investigative Committee said.

The committee said the truck’s driver had been identified as a resident of the Krasnodar region of Russia. “The investigation has begun at his place of residence,” it said. “The route of the truck and the relevant documentation is being studied.”

Russian officials have long warned of severe retaliation for strikes on Russian territory.

The explosion injects a new element of tension into the war at a time when Putin and those around him have warned that Russia could use nuclear weapons. President Biden warned this week of possible nuclear “Armageddon,” reflecting heightened alarm in the United States, which has the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal after Russia’s.

Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, tweeted a picture of the damaged bridge and said: “@Crimea, long time no see” along with a heart emoji. And the head of Ukraine’s postal service said the agency would issue a new stamp showing a damaged bridge reading: “Crimean Bridge – Done.”

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, tweeted a picture of the burning bridge paired with a grainy black-and-white clip of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” in an apparent reference to Putin’s 70th birthday, which was Friday.

Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, addressed the spate of memes and mocking social media posts from Ukraine. “The Kyiv regime’s reaction to the destruction of civilian infrastructure demonstrates its terrorist nature,” Zakharova posted on Telegram. Throughout the war, Russia has repeatedly bombed Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, including railroad stations, residential housing blocks, hospitals, schools and theaters.

Leonid Slutsky, a lawmaker in the Russian Duma, said reprisal was “unavoidable” if Ukrainian responsibility was confirmed. “The answer must be harsh, but not necessarily head-on,” he said. “Russia has extensive experience in combating terrorists, and those who use their methods should also understand this very well.”

Peskov said that Putin had been briefed by ministers and government authorities about the “emergency” on the bridge and had ordered the establishment of a commission including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, officials in Crimea, and the FSB, Russia’s security service to look into what occurred.

The Investigative Committee said it had opened a criminal case regarding the incident and sent forensic experts to the scene.

Oleg Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military expert, said that Russia’s military had relied on the bridge he called “Putin’s pearl” to bring in troops, weapons, ammunition, and fuel powering its operations in southern Ukraine.

The crippling of such a key artery – the only direct road and rail connection to Crimea from mainland Russia – could affect Moscow’s ability to support those troops as Ukraine presses a counteroffensive to reclaim occupied territory in the southern Kherson region.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have accelerated their advance into towns and villages seized by Russia, in the northeast Kharkiv region, Donetsk to the east, and in Kherson to the south.

Zhdanov said it wouldn’t be easy to secure equivalent routes to supply Russian-controlled areas including Zaporizhzhia, Melitopol, and the city of Kherson, an important target of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

That could add to challenges that have resulted in the Kremlin’s decision to dismiss or sideline at least eight generals since the Feb. 24 invasion. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Putin has faced unusual internal pushback in recent weeks over his management of the war.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces would receive “continuous support” in areas north of Crimea. “The Russian group of troops involved in the special military operation in the Nikolaev-Kryvorozhsk and Zaporozhsk operational directions are continuously supplied in full by land corridor and partially by sea transport,” the ministry said, according to Ria Novosti, a state-controlled news agency.

Podolyak, the presidential adviser, characterized the explosion as a manifestation of disarray within the Russian government.

“Undoubtedly, we are witnessing the beginning of large-scale negative processes in Russia,” he said in a comment sent later to The Post by his spokesman.

Podolyak noted that the driver of the truck that exploded was reported to have come from Russia.

“So, the answers should be sought in Russia,” he said. “The logistics of the explosion, synchronization with the fuel echelon, the volume of the destroyed roadway – all this clearly points to the Russian trace.”

The events at the bridge brought jubilation among Ukrainians but also anxiety about a possible Russian response.

In Mykolaiv, a city close to Russian-held territory, a cashier at a gas station showed her co-workers video of the bridge exploding on her phone, squealing with joy. “It’s better than if someone gave me flowers,” she said.

An artillery unit of Ukraine’s 59th Motorized Brigade similarly rejoiced. For one of the soldiers celebrating a birthday Saturday, the images on social media were like a birthday present, he said.

Near the front-line town of Shevchenkove, the sound of incoming artillery – the repeated blasts of suspected cluster munitions – thundered in the distance. A group of combat medics rushed into their vehicle to head there and tend to the injured.

The extent of the damage to the bridge was not immediately clear. Peskov told Ria Novosti there were “no forecasts on the timing of the reconstruction” of affected areas.

But by Saturday afternoon, Russian authorities were reporting that car and bus traffic had resumed on the bridge’s two remaining functional lanes, while trucks were being directed to ferries.

Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin told reporters that the volume of car traffic would increase but noted each vehicle would undergo a security check before traveling across the bridge. He asked residents to limit their trips across the bridge while authorities assess plans for reconstructing damaged or destroyed sections.

By Saturday night, an initial train run across the bridge had been completed, according to the state Crimean Railway. “A 15-car train made a successful run after the first stage of repair work was completed on the railroad part of Crimean Bridge,” it said.

Russian officials immediately sought to head off fears that the explosion would cause shortages of fuel, food and other essentials in Crimea, noting that Russia’s military occupation had created Putin’s long-sought “land bridge” to Crimea.

“A land corridor through the new regions has been established,” said Oleg Kryuchkov, an adviser to the head of Crimea.

Sevastopol governor Mikhail Razvozhayev initially cited a rush to buy gasoline and announced a limit on grocery purchases of three kilograms, or three packs of products per person but later said the restrictions were lifted.

Sergey Aksyonov, who heads the Crimea region, said reconstruction of the bridge would begin as soon as the investigation was completed. “There are no risks in this regard, as well as no reason for panic,” he said, according to Tass. “By our joint efforts we will overcome everything. There is no doubt about that.”