KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) — An explosion caused the partial collapse of a bridge linking the Crimean Peninsula with Russia on Saturday, damaging a key supply artery for the Kremlin’s faltering war effort in southern Ukraine. Russian authorities said a truck bomb caused the blast and that three people were killed.
The speaker of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed regional parliament immediately accused Ukraine of being behind the explosion, though Moscow didn’t apportion blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge and some lauded the destruction, but Kyiv stopped short of claiming responsibility.
The bombing came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 70, dealing him a humiliating blow that could lead him to up the ante in his war on Ukraine. Hours after the explosion, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that the air force chief, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, would be the commander of all Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
The statement marked the first official appointment of a single commander for the entire Russian force in Ukraine. Over the summer, the military announced that Surovikin was placed in charge of Russian troops in southern Ukraine.
In another potential setback for Putin, a Kremlin-backed official in Kherson, one of four Russia-annexed regions in Ukraine, announced a partial evacuation of civilians.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy chief of Kherson’s Russian-appointed administration, told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti agency that young children and their parents, as well as older people, could be relocated to two southern Russian regions.
Russian lawmakers called for Putin to declare a “counterterrorism operation” in response to the bridge bombing. Such a move could be used by the Kremlin to further broaden the powers of security agencies, ban rallies, tighten censorship, introduce restrictions on travel and expand a partial mobilization that Putin ordered last month.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said that a truck bomb caused seven railway cars carrying fuel to catch fire, resulting in a “partial collapse of two sections of the bridge.” A man and a woman who were riding in a vehicle across the bridge were killed by the explosion and their bodies were recovered, Russia’s Investigative Committee said. It didn’t provide details on the third victim or on what happened to the truck driver.
The blast occurred even though all vehicles driving across it undergo automatic checks for explosives by state-of-the-art control systems, drawing a stream of critical comments from Russian war bloggers.
The truck that exploded was owned by a resident of the Krasnodar region in southern Russia, Russia’s Investigative Committee said. It said that investigators arrived at his home as part of the inquiry and are looking at the truck’s route and other details.
The 19-kilometer (12-mile) bridge across the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov opened in 2018 and is the longest in Europe. The $3.6 billion project is a tangible symbol of Moscow’s claims on Crimea and has provided an essential link to the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Crimea holds symbolic value for Russia and is key to sustaining its military operations in southern Ukraine. While Russia seized areas north of Crimea early on during the invasion and built a land corridor to it along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is pressing a counteroffensive to reclaim them.
The Russian Defense Ministry said troops in the south were receiving necessary supplies through the land corridor and by sea. Russia’s Energy Ministry said Crimea has enough fuel for 15 days and that it was working on ways to replenish stock.
Train and automobile traffic over the bridge was suspended. Rail traffic would resume Saturday night, the Russian Transport Ministry said, and automobile traffic on one of the two links that remained intact would start up again soon. The ministry said vehicles would drive one way in one direction, and the flow would be alternated.
Putin was informed about the explosion and he ordered the creation of a government panel to deal with the emergency.
The speaker of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed regional parliament blamed Ukraine for the explosion, but downplayed the severity of the damage and said the bridge would be promptly repaired.
Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of Russian parliament, said “consequences will be imminent” if Ukraine is responsible.
Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the Russian Communist Party, which is nominally in the opposition but votes in line with Kremlin wishes in parliament, said the “terror attack” should serve as a wake-up call.
“The long-overdue measures haven’t been taken yet, the special operation must be turned into a counterterrorist operation,” he said.
Sergei Mironov, the head of the Just Russia faction in parliament, said that Russia should respond to the explosion on the bridge by attacking key Ukrainian infrastructure including power plants, bridges and railways.
The statements, especially from Zyuganov and Slutsky, may herald a decision by Putin to declare a counterterrorism operation.
The parliamentary leader of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party on Saturday stopped short of claiming that Kyiv was responsible but appeared to cast it as a consequence of Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.
“Russian illegal construction is starting to fall apart and catch fire. The reason is simple: if you build something explosive, then sooner or later it will explode,” David Arakhamia, the leader of the Servant of the People party, wrote on Telegram.
The Ukrainian postal service announced that it would issue stamps commemorating the blast like it did after the sinking of the Moskva, a Russian flagship cruiser, by an Ukrainian strike in late May.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted a video with the Kerch Bridge on fire on the left side and video with Marilyn Monroe singing her famous “Happy Birthday Mr. President” on the right.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that “the reaction of the Kyiv regime to the destruction of civilian infrastructure shows its terrorist nature.”
In August, Russia suffered a series of explosions at an airbase and munitions depot in Crimea, which underlined its vulnerability.
Local authorities in Crimea made conflicting statements about what the damaged bridge would mean for residents and their ability to buy consumer goods on the peninsula, a popular destination for Russian tourists year-round that is home to Sevastopol, a key city and a naval base.
The Association of Russia’s tourist agencies estimated that about 50,000 tourists were in Crimea on vacation at the time of the blast.
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has lost its last remaining external power source as a result of renewed shelling and is now relying on emergency diesel generators, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said.
The blast on the bridge occurred hours after explosions rocked the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv early Saturday, sending towering plumes of smoke into the sky and triggering a series of secondary explosions.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of pounding Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, with surface-to-air missiles and said at least one person was wounded. The strikes targeted two largely residential neighborhoods, the regional governor, Oleh Sinehubov, said on Telegram.