Putin tightens security after explosion on key bridge connecting Crimea to Russia

An explosion Saturday caused the partial collapse of a bridge connecting the Crimean peninsula to Russia, damaging a key supply artery for the Kremlin’s faltering war effort in southern Ukraine and hitting a towering symbol of Russian power in the region.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed people three people. The chairman of the Russian-backed regional parliament in Crimea blamed Ukraine, but Moscow did not blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to attack the bridge, with some praising Saturday’s destruction, but Kiev has stopped claiming responsibility.

The explosion, which Russian authorities said was caused by a truck bomb, threatened to sharply escalate Russia’s eight-month war, with some Russian lawmakers calling on President Vladimir Putin to declare a “counter-terrorism operation” the term “special military operation” was abolished. that had downplayed the scope of the fighting to ordinary Russians.

Putin signed a decree late on Saturday to tighten the security of the bridge and energy infrastructure between Crimea and Russia, and put Russia’s federal security agency, the FSB, in charge of the effort.

Hours after the explosion, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin would now be in command of all Russian forces in Ukraine. Surovikin, who was in charge of troops in southern Ukraine this summer, had led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a bombing campaign that devastated much of Aleppo.

However, Moscow continues to suffer losses on the battlefield.

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 last week. Kirill Stremousov told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti agency that young children, their parents and the elderly could be moved to two southern Russian regions as Kherson was “getting ready for a rough patch”.

The 19-kilometer-long Kerch Bridge, on a strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of ​​Azov, is a symbol of Moscow’s claims to Crimea and an essential link to the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The $3.6 billion bridge, the longest in Europe, is vital to supporting Russian military operations in southern Ukraine. Putin himself presided over the opening of the bridge in 2018.

The attack on it “will further undermine Russian morale, (and) give an extra boost to Ukraine,” said James Nixey of Chatham House, a think tank in London. “It’s possible the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it while losing a war.”

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

“Today was a good and mostly sunny day in the territory of our state,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was cloudy in Crimea. Although it was also hot.”

Zelenskyy said Ukraine wants a future “without occupiers. On our entire territory, especially in Crimea.”

Zelenskyy also said Ukrainian forces were advancing or holding the line to the east and south, but acknowledged “very, very difficult, very tough fighting” around the town of Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk, where Russian forces have claimed recent gains.

Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a truck bomb caused seven railcars 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, the Russian Commission of Inquiry said. It doesn’t say who the third victim was.

All vehicles crossing the bridge must undergo state-of-the-art explosives controls. The exploded truck belonged to a resident of the Krasnodar region of southern Russia, the Russian investigation commission said.

Train and car traffic over the bridge was temporarily halted. Car traffic resumed on Saturday afternoon on one of the two links that had remained intact, with flow alternating in both directions, said Sergey Aksyonov, the Russian-backed Crimean leader.

Train traffic slowly resumed. Two passenger trains left the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol and headed for the bridge on Saturday evening. Passenger ferry connections between Crimea and mainland Russia were relaunched on Sunday.

While Russia took areas north of Crimea early in its invasion of Ukraine and built a land corridor to it along the Sea of ​​Azov, Ukraine is pushing a counter-offensive to reclaim that area.

The Russian Defense Ministry said its forces in the south were getting supplies through that corridor and by sea. The Russian Ministry of Energy said Crimea has enough fuel for 15 days.

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

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 said.

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

Such statements could be an announcement of a decision by Putin to declare a counter-terrorism operation.

The parliamentary leader of Zelensky’s party threw the explosion following 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, sooner or later it will explode,” said David Arakhamia of the Servant of the People party.

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

The secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted a video showing 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 that “the Kiev regime’s response to the destruction of civilian infrastructure shows its terrorist nature.”

The Crimean Peninsula is a popular destination for Russian tourists and home to a Russian naval base. A Russian tourist organization estimated that there were 50,000 tourists in Crimea on Saturday.

Elsewhere, the UN nuclear watchdog said Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant has lost its last remaining external source of energy due to renewed shelling and now relies on emergency diesel generators.

Ukrainian authorities had also just begun searching the wreckage of the ruined city of Lyman in eastern Ukraine to assess the humanitarian toll and possible war crimes following months of Russian occupation.

“Some people died in their homes, some people died on the streets and the bodies are now being sent to experts for examination,” said Mark Tkachenko of Kramatorsk District Police.

Explosions also shook the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv early Saturday, sending plumes of smoke into the air and triggering secondary explosions. Ukrainian officials accused Russia of using surface-to-air missiles in two largely residential areas.

The apartment of Tetiana Samoilenko, a resident of Kharkiv, caught fire during the attack. She was in the kitchen when the explosion hit and sent the glass flying.

“Now I don’t have a roof over my head. Now I don’t know what to do now,” said the 80-year-old.

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