By Hannah Ritchie, Tim Lister and Josh Pennington, CNN
In a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a huge explosion severely damaged the only bridge linking the annexed Crimean Peninsula to the Russian mainland, crippling a key supply route for Moscow’s failing war in Ukraine.
Saturday morning’s blast caused parts of the Kerch Strait road and rail bridge – opened by Putin himself in 2018 – to collapse, images and video from the scene showed. At least three people were killed in the blast, Russian officials said, citing preliminary information.
The exact cause of the explosion of the longest bridge in Europe has not yet been confirmed. Russian officials said a truck exploded, causing sections of the part of the bridge road is collapsing. A subsequent fire engulfed a train of fuel tanks on a separate and adjacent portion of rail from the bridge.
Putin has ordered a “government commission” to consider the “urgency” of the Kerch Bridge in Crimea, Russian state media TASS reported.
An official in Crimea blamed “Ukrainian vandals” for the explosion. Some Ukrainian officials welcomed the incident without directly claiming responsibility. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “the Kyiv regime’s reaction to the destruction of civilian infrastructure testifies to its terrorist nature.”
Damage to the highway bridge appears to be severe, with the portion of the bridge that carries westbound highway traffic being crippled in at least two places. Damage to the rail link where the fuel tanks caught fire is unclear.
The bridge is strategically important as it connects Russia’s Krasnodar region to the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 in a move condemned by the international community.
It is an essential artery for supplying Crimea both for its daily needs and for supplying the army. In recent months, dozens of Russian military convoys have used the bridge, carrying vehicles, armor and fuel.
If the Russian military cannot use the bridge, its supply lines to southern Ukrainian forces would become more tenuous, especially when combined with Ukrainian advances south into the Kherson region. north of Crimea.
Russia used the Crimean railways to transport supplies to Kherson forces, and several railway nodes in Crimea and Kherson were attacked by long-range Ukrainian rockets.
Sergey Aksenov, the head of Crimea appointed by Russia, confirmed that “two spans of the platform of the part [of the bridge] from Krasnodar to Kerch, collapsed” after a large explosion, and the fuel tanks of a train caught fire. Video and images from the bridge show several charred tankers.
“As soon as the fire is extinguished, it will be possible to assess the extent of the damage to the bridge and the pillars, and it will be possible to talk about the timing of the restoration of traffic,” Aksenov said.
Footage of the 19-kilometre (11-mile) bridge posted on social media appears to show that part of the roadway from the vehicle and the railway bridge had fallen into the waters below. Flames burn from wagons above.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said on Telegram that preliminary information indicates three people were killed in the incident, “presumably the passengers of a car that was next to the truck that exploded”.
At least two bodies, that of a man and a woman, have been recovered from the water and their identities are being established, the investigation committee said.
Records say truck that exploded belonged to someone in Russia’s Krasnodar region; Investigators are checking the owner’s home and trying to determine the truck’s route, the investigating committee said.
The bridge spans the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, on which the main Ukrainian ports, including Mariupol, are located. For Russia, the bridge symbolizes the physical “reunification” of Crimea with the Russian mainland. The bridge carries much of Crimea’s needs – such as fuel and supplies – and has been regularly used to supply arms and fuel to Russian forces.
No further details on the timeline or scope of the commission have been announced.
Russian state media RIA Novosti said there were “no projections yet for the moment of the restoration of the Crimean Bridge”, citing Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
A Crimean official blamed “Ukrainian vandals”.
“Ukrainian vandals managed to put their bloody paws on the Crimean Bridge. And now they have something to be proud of, in 23 years of economic activity they have not managed to build anything worthwhile in Crimea. But they managed to damage the platform of the Russian bridge, ”said Chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea Vladimir Konstantinov.
“This is the whole essence of the kyiv regime and the Ukrainian state… Of course, the causes of the accident will be investigated and the damage will be repaired quickly,” he said. added.
CNN cannot independently verify Konstantinov’s claim.
Ukraine reacts to the explosion
Ukrainian officials taunted Russia about the explosion without directly acknowledging that Ukraine was responsible for the attack.
“Air Defense of the Russian Federation, are you sleeping?” the Ukrainian Armed Forces Navy said on Facebook, alongside a video showing a section of the bridge road that had been completely destroyed.
“Russian illegal construction is starting to collapse and catch fire. The reason is simple: if you build something explosive, sooner or later it will explode. And this is just the beginning,” David Arakhamia, leader of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party in parliament and a member of Kyiv’s negotiating team with Russia, said in a Telegram statement on the incident.
A senior Ukrainian official, Oleksiy Danilov, posted a video of the damaged Kerch Bridge alongside a clip of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr President,” which Monroe performed for President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Putin turned 70 on Friday.
On Thursday, Oleksii Hromov, a senior General Staff official, said that since September 21, Ukrainian troops had managed to advance 55 kilometers to the northeast, “establish control of 93 settlements, [and] take control of more than 2,400 square kilometres.
Hromov appeared to be referring to gains in the Kharkiv region that were made before September 21 but not confirmed until later.
“In the direction of Kherson, the enemy is trying to counterattack at the expense of the reserves in order to slow down the advance of our troops and regain the lost positions. Since October 1, 29 colonies have been taken under [our] control,” he said.
In an interview in August, a senior Ukrainian military commander said the Kerch Bridge was a legitimate target.
“This is a necessary measure to deprive them (Russia) of the possibility of supplying reserves and reinforcing their troops from Russian territory,” Major General Dmytro Marchenko said in an interview with RBC-Ukraine .
The Bridge from Russia to Crimea
The Kerch Bridge is capable of handling 40,000 cars a day and moving 14 million passengers and 13 million tonnes of cargo annually, state news agency RIA Novosti reported when Putin opened the bridge in 2018. .
Masked Russian special forces in camouflage gear with no unit insignia seized Crimea in a whirlwind operation in February 2014. At first, Russia denied that its troops carried out the mission. Later, he recognized that the so-called “little green men” were indeed Russian units. The West reacted quickly with crippling economic sanctions.
After the bridge opened, the United States condemned its construction as illegal.
“Russia’s construction of the bridge is a reminder of Russia’s continued willingness to flout international law,” a US State Department statement said at the time.
“The bridge not only represents an attempt by Russia to consolidate its illegal seizure and occupation of Crimea, but also hinders navigation by limiting the size of ships that can transit through the Kerch Strait, the only way to reach territorial waters. of Ukraine in the Sea of Azow.
Ukrainian officials echoed those sentiments after the explosion.
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled,” said Mykhailo Podoliak, adviser to the Ukrainian leader.
Train hit in eastern Ukraine
Meanwhile, a freight train in Ilovaisk, in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region, was hit by a “powerful explosion” on Saturday morning, according to Mariupol mayor adviser Petro Andrushenko.
“Not just Crimea. Not just fuel tanks. There is also a freight train in Ilovaisk. Residents report a fairly powerful explosion and subsequent detonation at night. The occupiers now have big supply problems on both sides,” Andrushenko said.
Pro-Russian authorities in the self-declared republic of Donetsk confirmed the freight train incident, releasing a video on Saturday showing the aftermath of the fire at a local train station.
Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry said on Telegram that shelling “by Ukrainian militants” caused the blaze. CNN cannot independently verify the claim.
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden warned of the dangers stemming from Putin’s nuclear threats as his military continues to suffer military setbacks in Ukraine.
“For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of (a) nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue on the path they are on,” Biden warned Thursday night at the speaking at a Democratic fundraiser in New York.
He added: “I don’t think there is such a thing as the ability (to) easily use a tactical nuke and not end up with Armageddon.”
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CNN’s Kostan Nechyporenko, Teele Rebane, Oleksandra Ochman, Josh Pennington and Brad Lendon contributed to this report.