A huge explosion rocked a strategically important bridge linking Russia and the Crimean Peninsula early Saturday, bringing down sections of road and causing fuel tanker wagons to catch fire on a train.
A day after President Vladimir Putin celebrated his 70th birthday, the Kerch Strait Bridge, which has been a symbol of his illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, was partially destroyed by the blast, which was triggered by a truck being “blown up,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.
This “resulted in the ignition of seven fuel tanks of a train heading towards the Crimean Peninsula,” the statement said, adding that two sections of road bridge had partially collapsed, but that the arch spanning the Kerch Strait, the waterway through which ships travel between the Black and Azov seas, had not been damaged.
In a later statement, the committee said three people had been killed in the blast. It added that the bodies of a man and a woman had been found in the water. No mention was made about the third victim.
Images of the bridge posted on social media appeared to show a portion of the roadway had fallen into the water beneath the bridge, and flames and smoke could be seen rising from rail cars above.
Sergei Aksyonov, the Russian governor of Crimea, later said on social media that the road bridge was still intact in one direction, although traffic had been suspended while the damage was assessed. In a later statement, he said that repair work would begin immediately.
Putin has instructed the government to create a state commission to investigate the incident, the Interfax news agency reported, citing Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. Asked about how long it would take to repair the bridge, he said there were “no forecasts yet.”
Without directly claiming responsibility for the explosion, Ukrainian officials have been posting gleeful messages to social media about the blast.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said it was just “the beginning” in a post on his Twitter account.
“Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything that is stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled,” he wrote.
The Security Service of Ukraine, in the meantime, said the bridge “beautifully burns,” in a Telegram post.
Russian lawmakers voiced their displeasure at the explosion on Europe's longest bridge that cost $3.6 billion and was opened with great fanfare by Putin in May 2018, four years after the Russian annexation of Crimea. Taking the wheel of a truck, Putin led a convoy of vehicles across it.
Since then the 12-mile structure that runs across the Kerch Strait has provided an essential link to the peninsula.
“An undisguised terrorist war is being waged against us. Moreover, the long-announced terrorist attack on the Crimean Bridge is no longer just a challenge, it is a declaration of war without rules,” Oleg Morozov, a member of the Russian Parliament, told the RIA news agency. “If we remain silent in response and do not give an adequate response, then such attacks will multiply,” he said.
In a separate interview with Ria, Alexander Bashkin, a Russian senator, said Russia “will give an adequate, conscious and, possibly, asymmetric response to this daring blow.”
“Politically it’s a big kick in the guts for Putin the day after his birthday,” Mick Ryan, a military strategist and former major general in the Australian army, told NBC News by phone Saturday.
“It shows that Russia can’t defend all these provinces that it annexed just recently, including Crimea,” Ryan said.
He also said that the bridge was an important supply route for newly mobilized troops and ammunition and civilian necessities coming into Crimea. Wounded troops and broken weaponry were also transported back to Russia across the bridge, he said.
The explosion will likely ramp up the pressure on Putin, whose forces have conceded ground in recent weeks as Ukraine liberated formerly occupied eastern towns such as Lyman, in the Donetsk province. This came after successive battlefield failures forced him to announce a partial mobilization at the end of September.
The most profound effect of the explosion would be the psychological impact it could have on everyday Russians watching at home, said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank.
“Russia will find it even harder to generate support for the war among the young men it is trying to mobilize to fight it,” he said. “Instead of spinning the facts, they are now spinning out of control.”
The direct operational impact “will depend on the extent of the damage and how much resupply of Crimea can shift to any alternative means of reaching the peninsula,” he said.
Ryan said that the bridge was “a symbol of [Putin’s] takeover of Crimea, and it’s a symbol that Ukrainians are intending to take it back.”