The 19km Kerch Strait Bridge has become an important symbol of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims to the peninsula, which his forces seized from Ukraine in 2014. Putin attended the bridge’s inauguration in 2018, leading length of a truck.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that “the reaction of the Kiev regime to the destruction of political infrastructure testifies to its terrorist character.” He also announced the decisive response that Moscow seems to be planning.
The extent of the damage was difficult to immediately assess, though any disruption to traffic on the bridge could have major implications for Russia’s ability to wage war in southern Ukraine, according to the NYT.
The bridge is the only military supply route connecting mainland Russia with the Crimean peninsula. Without it, the Russian military will be severely limited in its ability to deliver fuel, equipment and ammunition to Russian forces fighting for control of southern Ukraine.
Russia’s state-run RIA news agency reported that a car exploded on the bridge, causing seven train cars to burst into flames. While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, Russian and Ukrainian officials said the fire was not accidental.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the episode “extraordinary” in a statement, without specifying who was behind it. He said Vladimir Putin, who celebrated his 70th birthday a day earlier, had been briefed.
“The president instructed the prime minister to form a government commission to find out the causes of the incident and eliminate the consequences as soon as possible,” Mr Peskov said, according to Russian state media.
Officials in Russian-annexed Crimea have left little doubt who they believe is responsible.
“Ukrainian vandals were able to reach the Crimean bridge with their bloody hands,” said Vladimir Konstantinov, chairman of the so-called Crimean parliament.
Ukrainian officials did not immediately comment on the cause of the fire, although senior officials had previously said the bridge was a possible target.
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning,” Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, tweeted on Saturday. “Everything illegal must be destroyed. All stolen must be returned to Ukraine. All Russian occupiers must be expelled.”
A senior Ukrainian military official did not deny that Ukrainian forces were behind the attack, but did not confirm it.
“All I can say is that a fuel vehicle intended to supply the occupation forces in southern Ukraine was crossing the bridge,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official added: “Putin must be happy. Not everyone gets such an expensive gift on their birthday.”
In recent weeks, the traffic of military vehicles heading across the bridge into Crimea has increased as Russia has placed tanks and equipment on the front lines in the Kherson region, a fertile swath of southern Ukraine that Kremlin forces seized in the first weeks war’s.
Last week, Ukrainian forces stepped up counter-offensive operations in the region, taking back significant swathes of land in a bid to drive Russian forces east across the Dnieper River and liberate Kherson.