(CNN) – In a major blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a massive blast severely damaged the only bridge connecting the annexed Crimea peninsula to mainland Russia and paralyzed a key supply route for Moscow’s faltering war in Ukraine.
The blast early Saturday caused parts of the road and rail bridge across the Kerch Strait – which was opened by Putin himself in 2018 – to collapse, images and video from the scene showed.
The exact cause of the explosion on Europe’s longest bridge is unclear. Russian officials said a fuel truck exploded, but parts of the road portion of the bridge that crosses towards Crimea appear to have collapsed. A subsequent fire engulfed a train of tankers on a separate part of the bridge.
Putin immediately commissioned a “government commission” to investigate the “emergency” of the Kerch bridge in Crimea, the Russian state media TASS reported. According to TASS, the heads of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations and the Ministry of Transport are now at the scene of the incident.
Damage to the road bridge appears to be severe, with the portion of the bridge that carries westbound traffic paralyzed in at least two places.
The damage to the rail link is unclear, but several wagons – apparently loaded with fuel – caught fire.
The bridge was built after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, which was condemned by the international community. It is a critical artery for supplying Crimea with both its daily needs and supplies for the military. Dozens of Russian military convoys have used the bridge in recent months, transporting vehicles, armor and fuel.
If the Russian military cannot use the bridge, its supply lines to forces in southern Ukraine would become increasingly weak, especially when combined with Ukrainian pushes south into the Kherson region north of Crimea.
Russia has used the Crimean railway to transport supplies to forces in Kherson, and several rail hubs in both Crimea and Kherson have been attacked by long-range Ukrainian missiles.
Sergey Aksenov, the Russian-appointed head of Crimea, confirmed that “two spans of the roadbed of the part [of the bridge] from Krasnodar to Kerch, collapsed after a large explosion.
Aksenov said that “fuel tanks caught fire at the same time. Now two locomotives are approaching” to remove the burning train, he said. Videos and images from the bridge show several charred rail vehicles.
“Once the fire is extinguished, it will be possible to assess the extent of damage to the bridge and piers and talk about when traffic will be restored,” Aksenov said.
Images of the Kerch Bridge posted to social media appear to show part of the roadway of the vehicular and railway bridge that had fallen into the waters below. Flames burn from rail cars above. It is still unclear whether there were victims.
The tanker was on the 19-kilometer bridge – strategically important because it connects Russia’s Krasnodar Krai with the Crimea peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The bridge spans the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, which is home to important Ukrainian ports including Mariupol. For Russia, the bridge symbolizes the physical “reunification” of Crimea with mainland Russia. The bridge carries much of Crimea’s needs – such as fuel and goods – and was regularly used to supply Russian forces with weapons and fuel.
Further details on the timing or scope of the engagement were not disclosed. The decision comes after Putin “received reports from [Russian Prime Minister] Mikhail Mishustin, [Russian Deputy Prime Minister] Marat Khusnullin, the heads of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Ministry of Transport and the heads of law enforcement agencies in connection with the Crimean Bridge emergency,” TASS reported, citing Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
Russian state media RIA Novosti said there were “no forecasts yet for when the Crimean bridge will be restored,” also citing Peskov.
“Work is underway to extinguish the fire,” adviser to Russia’s chief administrator of occupied Crimea, Oleg Kryunchkov, said in a Telegram post, adding that “the bridge’s bows were not damaged.”
In a post on Telegram, an official in Crimea blamed “Ukrainian vandals” for the explosion on the Kerch bridge.
“Ukrainian vandals somehow managed to get their bloody paws on the Crimean bridge. And now they have something to be proud of, because in 23 years of their economic activity they have not managed to build anything interesting in Crimea. But they managed to damage the roadbed of the Russian bridge,” said Chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea Vladimir Konstantinov.
“This is the whole essence of the Kiev regime and the Ukrainian state… Of course, the causes of the accident are being investigated and the damage is being repaired quickly,” he added.
CNN cannot independently verify Konstantinov’s claim.
Ukraine reacts to the explosion
Ukrainian officials responded to Saturday’s blast without directly acknowledging that Ukraine was responsible for the blast.
“Air Defense of the Russian Federation, are you sleeping?” the Navy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said on Facebook, alongside a video showing a section of the bridge that was completely destroyed.
“Russian illegal structures are starting to collapse and catch fire. The reason is simple: if you build something explosive, sooner or later it will explode. And that’s just the beginning,” David Arakhamia, leader of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’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, released video of the damaged Kerch Bridge along with 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 forces have managed to advance 55 kilometers to the northeast, “gain control of 93 settlements, [and] Take control of more than 2,400 square kilometers.”
Hromov appeared to be referring to gains in the Kharkiv region made before September 21 but confirmed later.
“In the direction of Kherson, the enemy is trying to counterattack at the expense of reserves in order to stop the advance of our troops and regain lost positions. Since October 1, 29 settlements have been taken over [our] control,” he said.
In an August interview, a senior Ukrainian military commander said the Kerch Bridge was a legitimate target.
“This is a necessary measure to deprive them (Russia) of the ability to deploy reserves and reinforce their troops from Russian territory,” Major General Dmytro Marchenko said in an interview with RBC-Ukraine.
Russia’s bridge to Crimea
The Kerch Bridge is capable of handling 40,000 cars a day and carrying 14 million passengers and 13 million tons of cargo a year, state news agency RIA Novosti reported when Putin opened the bridge in 2018.
In February 2014, Russian special forces in camouflage suits without unit insignia occupied Crimea in a blitz operation. Russia initially denied that its troops carried out the mission. She later admitted that the so-called “green men” were actually Russian units. The West responded 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,” the US State Department said in a statement at the time.
“The bridge not only represents an attempt by Russia to consolidate its illegitimate seizure and occupation of Crimea, but also impedes shipping by limiting the size of ships that can pass through the Kerch Strait, the only way around sovereign waters to reach Ukraine in the Sea of Azov.”
Ukrainian officials echoed these sentiments after the blast.
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled,” explains Mykhailo Podoliak, adviser to the Ukrainian leader.
Train crash in eastern Ukraine
Meanwhile, a freight train in Ilovaysk, in the Russian-held Donetsk region, was hit by a “powerful explosion” on Saturday morning, according to Mariupol Mayor’s adviser Petro Andrushenko.
“Not only Crimea. Not just fuel tanks. There is also a freight train in Ilovaisk. Locals report a fairly powerful explosion and subsequent detonation at night. The occupiers now have big problems with supplies from both sides,” said Andrushenko.
Pro-Russian authorities in the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic confirmed the freight train incident and released video on Saturday showing the aftermath of the fire at a local train station.
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden expressed caution about the dangers posed by Putin’s nuclear threats as his military in Ukraine continue to face military backlash.
“For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of using (a) nuclear weapon if things actually continue as they are,” Biden warned Thursday night during a speech at a Democratic fundraiser in New York.
He added, “I don’t think there is such a thing as the ability to just (deploy) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up in Armageddon.”
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