A huge blast Saturday damaged the only bridge connecting annexed Crimea to the Russian mainland, causing parts of it to collapse.
The attack, which disrupted major transport links between mainland Russia and the annexed peninsula, not only struck a blow against Russia’s military effort in Ukraine but also represented a psychological blow for Moscow and a major propaganda victory for Kyiv.
Russia responded by launching a barrage of missile strikes across Ukraine on Monday.
The exact cause of the bridge blast remains unclear. Russian officials said a fuel truck exploded, and two spans of the road crossing in the direction of Crimea collapsed. A subsequent fire engulfed a train of fuel trucks on a separate part of the bridge.
Images of the Kerch bridge showed a portion of the roadway of the vehicle and rail bridge had fallen into the waters below it. Flames could be seen burning from rail cars above.
It holds huge strategic and symbolic importance for Russia, which built the 19-kilometer (about 12-mile) bridge at a cost of around $3.7 billion after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. It was the physical expression of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective to take over Ukraine and bind it to Russia forever. The day it opened, he led a triumphant convoy over the bridge. Ukrainians revile the bridge, Europe’s longest, which stands as a reminder of Russian occupation.
It is a critical artery for supplying Crimea with both its daily needs and supplies for the military, in addition to fuel and goods for civilians. Over the last few months, dozens of Russian military convoys have used the bridge, carrying vehicles, armor and fuel. If the Russian military’s use of the bridge is hampered, its supply lines to forces in southern Ukraine would become more tenuous, especially when combined with Ukrainian advances southward into Kherson region, north of Crimea.
Russian officials have claimed that the explosion was caused by a truck blowing up on the road bridge.
The spokeswoman for the Russian Investigative committee, Svetlana Petrenko, said Saturday that “a truck was blown up on the automobile part of the Crimean Bridge from the Taman Peninsula [the westbound lanes of the bridge], which led to the ignition of seven fuel tanks of a train travelling toward the Crimean Peninsula. As a result, two car lanes of the bridge partially collapsed.”
Crimea raised its terror-threat level to yellow on Saturday across much of the peninsula after the explosion. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday called the bridge blast a “terrorist attack” and said that the organizers and executors were “Ukrainian special services.”
CNN is unable to verify the Russian explanation for the explosion.
Ukrainian officials gloated over the bridge blast but have not claimed responsibility for the attack.
The blast took place the day after Putin turned 70, and Ukraine’s Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov published video of the bridge in flames alongside a video of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mister President.” Others online compared the bridge attack to Ukraine’s April sinking of the Russian Navy’s warship the Moskva.
In a brief post on its official Twitter account, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense reacted to the explosion, saying: “The guided missile cruiser Moskva and the Kerch Bridge – two notorious symbols of Russian power in Ukrainian Crimea – have gone down. What’s next in line, Russkies?”
Among the responses, the Navy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine posted on Facebook, “Air defense of the Russian Federation, are you sleeping?” alongside a video showing a section of the bridge’s road that had been completely destroyed.
Major transport links between mainland Russia and the annexed peninsula of Crimea – including buses and trains – were temporarily suspended in the wake of the attack.
Russian officials said a limited amount of car traffic had resumed on undamaged sections of the bridge’s roadways by Saturday evening and that train services were resuming on the bridge’s railways.
But larger vehicles like heavy trucks, vans, and buses continue to be transited on ferry boats Sunday, suggesting a more limited service at least in the short-term.
On Monday Russia responded by launching what appeared to be the biggest wave of missile and rocket strikes since Moscow’s opening salvo of the war.
In a televised address on Monday, the Russian president blamed Ukraine for the Kerch bridge attack, describing it as an act of terror, and threatened more strikes if attacks continued against Russia.
In retaliation, he said, Russia had carried out a mass strike using long-range weaponry against Ukraine’s energy, military and communications infrastructure.
”In terms of the further act of terrorism on the territory of Russia, the Russian reply will be harsh and will be corresponding to the level of threat to the Russian Federation, have no doubt about it,’ Putin warned.
Multiple cities across Ukraine came under fire on Monday, with Russia appearing to target civilian areas and energy infrastructure. The Ukrainian government told residents to expect possible rolling blackouts and interruptions to water supply.
At least five people were killed in the capital Kyiv, where blasts during the morning rush hour sent residents scrambling to bomb shelters underground for the first time in months.
In the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, further casualties were reported after a Russian missile strike destroyed an apartment block.
And in Dnipro, a central Ukrainian city that has harbored displaced people fleeing the front lines since the war began, a barrage of rockets left people dead and wounded, roiling any relative sense of safety.
Regional authorities in Lviv, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv also reported attacks.