Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Kerch Bridge linking Russia to Crimea on fire after explosion


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 morning 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 the Kremlin illegally annexed in 2014, is another serious setback to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, disrupting a crucial supply route.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged that the government had no timeline for repairing the 12-mile bridge.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, a top law enforcement body, said a truck explosion had 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.

Putin in 2018 personally opened 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.

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

Mykhailo Podoloyak, 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.”

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 has 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 Investigative 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 repeatedly 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.

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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.”

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.

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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 an investigative commission including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, officials in Crimea, and the FSB, Russia’s security service.

The commission has been directed “to find out the reasons behind the accident and eliminate consequences as soon as possible,” Peskov said, according to Interfax, the Russian news agency.

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

The bridge is the only direct road and rail connection to Crimea from mainland Russia. The crippling of such a key artery will affect Russia’s ability to reinforce and resupply its 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, and Donetsk to the east, and in Kherson to the south.

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 defense ministry said, according to Ria Novosti, a state-controlled news agency.

The extent of the damage to the bridge, and whether any of it would remain passable to vehicles, was not immediately clear. Peskov told Ria Novosti there were “no forecasts on the timing of the reconstruction” of affected areas.

While Russian Railways canceled all passenger service to and from Crimea and said that tickets would be refunded without charge, the Transport Ministry later said train service was expected to resume by Saturday evening.

Russian authorities 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.

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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.”

Abbakumova reported from Riga, Latvia. Isabelle Khurshudyan and Kamila Hrabchuk in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, and Kostiantyn Khudov in Kyiv contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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