Kyiv | A fireball that damaged the only bridge linking the occupied Crimean Peninsula to Russia disrupted the most important supply line for Russian troops fighting in southern Ukraine and dealt an embarrassing blow to the Kremlin.
The blast and fire sent part of the 19-kilometre Kerch Strait Bridge tumbling into the sea and killed at least three people, according to the Russian authorities, who said a Ukrainian truck bomb had caused the blast.
That claim could not be independently verified, and the Ukrainian government, which lauded the damage, stopped short of taking responsibility for the attack on Saturday. But the attack comes as Russia faces continued losses on the battlefield and mounting criticism at home.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who presided over the bridge’s opening in 2018, the explosion was a highly personal affront, underscoring his failure to get a handle on a relentless series of Ukrainian attacks.
The explosion is emblematic of a Russian military in disarray. Russian forces were unable to protect the bridge, despite its centrality to the war effort, its personal importance to Mr Putin and its potent symbolism as the literal connection between Russia and Crimea.
Hours after the explosion, the Kremlin appointed General Sergei Surovikin, yet another new commander, to oversee its forces in Ukraine. Previous leadership shake-ups have done little to right the military’s floundering performance.
General Surovikin, who this summer was placed in charge of troops in southern Ukraine, is known for his brutality. He had led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a bombardment that destroyed much of Aleppo.
The full extent of the bridge damage was not immediately clear. The bridge has sections for train and car traffic. An undamaged portion of the automobile span was reopened on Saturday evening, and Russia’s transportation department said the railroad section of the bridge could soon be repaired.
Main supply route
Even so, Russian officials and hard-line military bloggers were already calling for revenge, with one member of Crimea’s parliament warning that anything less than an “extremely harsh” response would show weakness.
Any serious impediment to traffic on the bridge could have a profound effect on Russia’s ability to wage war in southern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting an increasingly effective counteroffensive.
The bridge is the primary military supply route linking Russia with the Crimean Peninsula. Without it, analysts said, the Russian military would be severely limited in its ability to bring fuel, equipment and ammunition to Russian units fighting in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, two of the four Ukrainian provinces that Mr Putin announced Russia had annexed on September 30.
“Conceivably the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it while losing a war,” said political analyst James Nixey of Britain’s Chatham House think tank.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a truck had exploded on the automobile side of the bridge, igniting seven fuel cisterns being pulled by a train on a parallel rail line headed in the direction of Crimea.
In video captured by a surveillance camera on the bridge, a huge fireball is seen, seeming to consume several vehicles. The explosion caused two sections of the bridge to partly collapse.
Ratcheting up pressure
For the Ukrainians, the explosion “is not necessarily a decisive victory, but the balance of war often turns on an accumulation of lesser victories,” said Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research group based in London. “It is another ratchet of the pressure on President Putin.”
While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, Ukrainian officials, who in the past have said the bridge would be a legitimate target for a strike, indicated that the explosion was no accident and made no secret of their satisfaction.
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, wrote in a Twitter post on Saturday. “Everything illegal, must be destroyed. Everything stolen returned to Ukraine. All Russian occupiers expelled.”
Occupation officials in Crimea left little doubt about who they thought was responsible.
“Ukrainian vandals were able to reach the Crimean bridge with their bloody hands,” said Vladimir Konstantinov, the head of Crimea’s Kremlin-installed parliament.
In recent weeks, military traffic heading across the bridge into Crimea has increased, as Russia has raced tanks and artillery equipment to the front lines in the Kherson region, a fertile slice of southern Ukraine that the Kremlin’s forces occupied in the first weeks of the war.
Ukrainian forces have stepped up their counteroffensive in the region, recapturing significant amounts of land in an effort to drive Russian forces east across the Dnieper River and liberate the city of Kherson.
Without the Kerch Strait Bridge, particularly the railroad section, the Kremlin would have few good options for supplying these troops with fuel and military equipment from their stocks in Russia, analysts said.
Ferrying supplies by ship or plane to Crimea would be much more cumbersome, experts said. And a possible alternative overland supply route using southern Ukrainian territory seized by Russian forces would be vulnerable to attack and require the use of trucks, as there are no functioning rail lines.
“Essentially all heavy military traffic passed through the bridge, tanks, artillery and so on,” said Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst with Roshan Consulting.
Whether or not Ukraine takes responsibility for the bridge blast, the episode is redolent of other attacks carried out by Ukrainian forces against targets that were highly symbolic and showcased Ukraine’s military ingenuity in the face of a much stronger, more heavily armed Russian military.
Black Sea fleet
In April, two Ukrainian-made Neptune cruise missiles, a weapon system that had never before been used in battle, slammed into the hull of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The strike set off a series of explosions that eventually caused the cruiser to sink, killing an unknown number of sailors, including possibly the ship’s captain.
While the attack on the Moskva stunned Russia’s military establishment, it was a series of explosions over the summer at military targets in Crimea that truly underscored Ukraine’s ability to strike at Russia’s pride as well as its army. The attacks, including on the critical Saki Air Base, shattered the illusion that Crimea, the crown jewel of Mr Putin’s years of conquest in Ukraine, would be spared violence during the war.
Seized by Mr Putin’s forces in 2014 and illegally incorporated into Russia shortly after, Crimea has transformed from a quiet summer resort in southern Ukraine into a beachhead of military operations, which before the war, had become a symbol of Russia’s imperial resurgence.