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Explosion on Crimean bridge damages key Russian supply route; 3 people killed

A burning bridge seen at a distance over a body of water
Flames and smoke rise from a bombed bridge connecting Russian-occupied Crimea to Russia over the Kerch Strait on Saturday.
(Associated Press)
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An explosion Saturday caused the partial collapse of a bridge linking the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula with Russia, damaging an important supply artery for the Kremlin’s faltering war effort in southern Ukraine and hitting an unmistakable symbol of Russian power in the region.

Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed three people. The speaker of the Russian-backed regional parliament in Crimea accused Ukraine, but Moscow didn’t apportion blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge, and some lauded the destruction Saturday, but Kyiv stopped short of claiming responsibility.

The explosion, which Russian authorities said was caused by a truck bomb, risked a sharp escalation in Russia’s seven-month war, with some Russian lawmakers calling for President Vladimir Putin to declare a “counter-terrorism operation” in retaliation, shedding the term “special military operation” that had downplayed the scope of fighting to ordinary Russians.

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Putin signed a decree late Saturday tightening security for the bridge and for energy infrastructure between Crimea and Russia, and put Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, in charge of the effort.

Hours after the explosion, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that the air force chief, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, would now command all Russian troops in Ukraine. Surovikin, who over the summer was placed in charge of troops in southern Ukraine, had led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of Aleppo.

Russia, meanwhile, continues to suffer battlefield losses.

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On Saturday, a Kremlin-backed official in Ukraine’s Kherson region announced a partial evacuation of civilians from the southern province, one of four illegally annexed by Moscow recently. Kirill Stremousov told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti agency that young children, their parents and elderly people could be relocated to two southern Russian regions because Kherson was getting “ready for a difficult period.”

The 12-mile Kerch Bridge, on a strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, is a tangible symbol of Moscow’s claims on Crimea and an essential link to the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The $3.6-billion bridge, Europe’s longest, is vital to sustaining Russia’s military operations in southern Ukraine. Putin presided over the bridge’s opening in 2018.

The attack on it “will have a further sapping effort on Russian morale, [and] will give an extra boost to Ukraine’s,” said James Nixey of Chatham House, a think tank in London. “Conceivably the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it while losing a war.”

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a video address, indirectly acknowledged the bridge attack but did not address its cause.

“Today was not a bad day and mostly sunny on our state’s territory,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was cloudy in Crimea. Although it was also warm.”

Zelensky said Ukraine wants a future “without occupiers. Throughout our territory, in particular in Crimea.”

Zelensky also said Ukrainian forces advanced or held the line in the east and south, but acknowledged “very, very difficult, very tough fighting” around the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, where Russian forces have claimed recent gains.

Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said the Crimean truck bomb caused seven railway cars carrying fuel to catch fire, resulting in the “partial collapse of two sections of the bridge.” A man and a woman riding in a vehicle on the bridge were killed, Russia’s Investigative Committee said. It didn’t say whom the third victim was.

Vehicles are supposed to undergo checks for explosives before crossing. The truck that blew up was owned by a resident of Russia’s Krasnodar region. Russian authorities said the man’s home was searched and experts were looking at the truck’s route.

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Traffic over the bridge was temporarily suspended. Car traffic resumed Saturday afternoon on one of the two links that remained intact, with the flow alternating in each direction, Crimea’s Russia-backed regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov, wrote on Telegram.

Rail traffic was resuming slowly. Two passenger trains departed from the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol and headed toward the bridge Saturday evening. Passenger ferry links between Crimea and the Russian mainland were being relaunched Sunday.

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Russia seized areas north of Crimea early during its invasion of Ukraine and built a land corridor to it along the Sea of Azov, but more recently Ukraine is pressing a counteroffensive to reclaim that territory.

The Russian Defense Ministry said its troops in the south were receiving necessary supplies through that corridor and by sea. Russia’s Energy Ministry said Crimea has enough fuel for 15 days.

Russian war bloggers responded to the bridge attack with fury, urging Moscow to retaliate by striking Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. Putin ordered the creation of a government panel to deal with the emergency.

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Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party, said the “terror attack” should serve as a wake-up call. “The special operation must be turned into a counter-terrorist operation,” he declared.

Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s lower house, said “consequences will be imminent” if Ukraine was responsible. And Sergey Mironov, leader of A Just Russia, a political faction, said Russia should respond by attacking key Ukrainian infrastructure.

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Such statements may herald a decision by Putin to declare a counter-terrorism operation.

The parliamentary leader of Zelensky’s party stopped short of claiming that Kyiv was responsible, but cast the bridge explosion 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,” said David Arakhamia of the Servant of the People party.

The Ukrainian postal service announced that it would issue stamps commemorating the blast, as it did after the sinking of the Moskva, a Russian flagship cruiser, by a Ukrainian strike.

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The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted a video with the Kerch Bridge on fire and Marilyn Monroe singing her “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” song. Putin turned 70 on Friday.

In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “the reaction of the Kyiv regime to the destruction of civilian infrastructure shows its terrorist nature.”

Authorities in Crimea made conflicting statements about what the damaged bridge would mean for residents. The peninsula is a popular destination for Russian tourists and home to a Russian naval base. A tourist association estimated that 50,000 vacationers were in Crimea on Saturday.

Elsewhere, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has lost its last remaining external power source as a result of renewed shelling and is relying on emergency diesel generators.

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Ukrainian authorities were also just beginning to sift through the wreckage of the devastated city of Lyman in eastern Ukraine, assessing the humanitarian toll and the possibility of war crimes after a months-long Russian occupation.

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“Some people died in their houses, some people died in the streets, and the bodies are now being sent to experts for examination,” said Mark Tkachenko of the Kramatorsk district police.

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 secondary explosions. Ukrainian officials accused Russia of pounding Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, with surface-to-air missiles in two largely residential neighborhoods.

Kharkiv resident Tetiana Samoilenko’s apartment caught fire in the attack. She was in the kitchen when the blast struck, sending glass flying.

“Now I have no roof over my head. Now I don’t know what to do next,” the 80-year-old said.

Schreck reported from Kyiv and Stepanenko from Kharkiv. Francisco Seco in Kharkiv and Justin Spike in Lyman contributed to this report.

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