Putin blames Kyiv for attack on strategic Crimea bridge

AP Photo
Flame and smoke rise from the Crimean Bridge connecting Russian mainland and the Crimean peninsula over the Kerch Strait, in Kerch, Crimea, early Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

KYIV, Ukraine – President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine on Sunday of orchestrating the attack on a key Russian link with occupied Crimea, injecting new, heightened stakes into a calamitous episode that Ukrainian leaders touted as proof of their ability to prevail in the war with Russia.

Russian investigators claimed to have swiftly identified suspects in the predawn fireball Saturday that sent concrete spans of the Crimean Bridge, a $4 billion project symbolizing Russia’s ambitions to control Ukraine, buckling into the waters of the Kerch Strait. A day after the incident, which Russia’s top law enforcement body deemed a terrorist attack, Putin announced that Ukraine’s special services were responsible.

“There is no doubt that the attack was aimed at destroying critical civilian infrastructure of the Russian Federation,” Putin said in a video released by the Kremlin. The 12-mile-long span, while used by civilians, is also a crucial military logistics route for Russia’s armed forces, the only direct road and rail route from mainland Russia to Crimea.

The incident sent shock waves across the region, puncturing Kremlin assurances about the bridge’s invincibility and compounding the challenges Russia faces in holding back a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has recovered occupied areas in the country’s south and east.

While Russian officials said that limited road and rail traffic would continue, substantial damage to the bridge posed an immediate logistics challenge for Moscow’s military offensive. Putin personally inaugurated the bridge in 2018, in a step designed to solidify Russia’s grip on the peninsula, which it illegally annexed in 2014.

While the Ukrainian government did not publicly claim responsibility for the incident, officials in Kyiv sought to employ the blast as evidence of its capacity to achieve a battlefield victory against Russia’s larger, better armed military, a prospect dismissed by many Western officials only a few months ago.

A Ukrainian official told The Washington Post on Saturday that Ukraine’s special services were behind the explosion, which Russian authorities said took place when a truck exploded, igniting fuel tanks on a passing train.

Speaking in the video with Putin, Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, said the truck in the incident, which he said also involved Russian and other nationals, came from Bulgaria through Georgia and into Russia before being driven toward Crimea.

Ukrainian officials dismissed the Russian statements, instead condemning Russia for overnight missile strikes that authorities said killed at least 14 people and injured at least 70, including 11 children, in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia. After the attack, officials posted photos of a partially destroyed apartment building, where the central section had collapsed into a pile of rubble.

“Putin accuses Ukraine of terrorism? Sounds too cynical even for Russia,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Twitter. “There is only one terrorist state here and the whole world knows who it is.”

Russia has repeatedly struck civilian targets since its Feb. 24 invasion, including hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and railway stations.

In Zaporizhzhia, at least eight people were pulled from the debris after the attack, Oleksandr Starukh, governor of the Zaporizhzhia region, said Sunday.

While rescuers worked to clear the debris the following night, another airstrike devastated the area, Starukh said. About 2 a.m. Monday local time, Starukh warned people in Zaporizhzhia to take cover because of an incoming airstrike, according to his Telegram account. About an hour later, he said a residential building had been destroyed.

The destruction highlighted the potential for Russian retaliation for the bridge incident, and the ongoing vulnerability of Ukrainian cities despite the massive shipments of weapons provided by the United States and European nations in recent months.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the Zaporizhzhia attack provided further proof that Ukraine’s backers should accelerate that supply. “We urgently need more modern air and missile defense systems to save innocent lives,” he said on Twitter.

Officials in Kyiv hope that the bridge incident, whatever its cause, will provide additional fuel to their campaign to attract expanded support from the West, including longer-range missiles and tanks, and in turn convince Russian troops and the Russian public that the war is a lost cause.

Simon Schlegel, a Ukraine expert with the International Crisis Group, said highway routes across Russian-controlled territory to the strategic city of Kherson, which Russian is expected to defend zealously, were not an ideal replacement for the Crimean bridge because they are closer to Ukrainian military positions.

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister who now serves as an adviser to the Zelensky government, said the psychological impact of the bridge incident may be greater than even the resulting logistical challenges for Russia.

“It destroys the trust from the Russian military, the Russian government and even generally Russian people in their inability to manage risks and inability to protect,” he said. “And that is hugely important.”

Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, called the Zaporizhzhia attack “barbaric. . . . We’ll have to keep reaching deeper,” he said on Twitter. “More military assistance, more aid, more sanctions.”

Russian authorities sought to telegraph normalcy following the bridge blast, despite what appeared to be serious damage to the structure.

In a message on his Telegram channel, Sergei Aksyonov, head of the Crimea region, showed a photo of an undisturbed section of the bridge and said that officials were working to regularize transport between Crimea and Russia’s Krasnodar region. He said normal railway services had resumed but that only cars were passing on the bridge for now, while buses and heavy vehicles were traveling by ferry.

Russia’s transport ministry reported on Sunday that passenger and freight trains were running regularly across the bridge by Sunday morning. It said commuter rail service would resume that evening, according to Interfax.

It was not clear whether truck-borne explosives or something else caused the incident.

Baza, a Russian news outlet that frequently reports leaked information, stated on its Telegram channel that the driver of the truck the Russian authorities said exploded on the bridge had been contracted to deliver a cargo shipment to Simferopol, a city in Crimea. The driver was supposed to be paid 48,000 rubles, or about $770, Baza reported.

He was contracted on Oct. 6 and loaded the cargo in the Russian city of Armavir on Oct. 7, stopping to sleep just before the bridge and heading on early the next morning, it said.

“He told his family about it, after the call he turned off his phone,” Baza said. Video posted by a Russian state newspaper showed the explosion occurring at 6:03 a.m., when few vehicles were traveling on the bridge.

Officials in St. Petersburg named the two other people authorities said were killed in the explosion as Eduard Chuchakin and Zoya Sofronova, a married couple who worked as historians and documentarians. Authorities said their car was driving near the truck that exploded.

The attack may also intensify internal pressure that Putin is facing over battlefield setbacks. The Russian leader is due to hold a Security Council meeting on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Already, prominent Russians are urging reprisal, including lawmakers and media figures such as Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of state-owned channel RT. After the blast, she asked in a tweet: “And?”

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, called for a forceful response.

“Russia’s response to this crime can only be the direct destruction of the terrorists. The way it is generally done in the world,” he said in an interview with journalist Nadana Friedrichson, which was published on her Telegram channel. “This is what the citizens of Russia are waiting for.”