Blast damages only bridge linking Russia and Crimea; Zelenskyy advisor calls it 'the beginning'

Blast damages only bridge linking Russia and Crimea; Zelenskyy advisor calls it 'the beginning'

This video grab taken and released on Oct. 8, 2022 shows thick black smoke rising from a fire on the Kerch bridge that links Crimea to Russia.

– | Afp | Getty Images

Russian authorities reported on Saturday that a large blaze erupted on the only bridge linking mainland Russia to the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Russian state-backed media cited the national anti-terrorism committee as saying that a truck exploded on the road traffic side of the Kerch bridge at 6:07 a.m. local time before the road partially collapsed. Three people were killed in the blast, according to Russian authorities. The blaze reportedly set fire to seven oil tankers being carried by rail to Crimea, with thick black smoke seen rising into the sky.

Images of the bridge posted on social media appeared to show a portion of the roadway had fallen into the water beneath the bridge, and flames and smoke could be seen rising from rail cars above.

Despite the damage, limited road traffic resumed about 10 hours after the blast, and the Transport Ministry said it expected rail traffic to restart later in the day.

Black smoke billows from a fire on the Kerch bridge that links Crimea to Russia, after a truck exploded, near Kerch, on October 8, 2022.

– | Afp | Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree instructing tighter security for the bridge as well as the infrastructure supplying electricity and natural gas to the peninsula. He also ordered a commission be set up to investigate the blast 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 bombardment that destroyed much of Aleppo.

The Kerch bridge, sometimes referred to as the Crimean bridge, is one of Putin’s prestige projects. It was built on his orders shortly after the Kremlin annexed Crimea in 2014 to support Moscow’s claims to the territory.

The bridge, a 12-mile crossing of road and railways, is a crucial supply route for Russian forces based in Ukraine’s Kherson region.

It was not yet clear if the blast was a deliberate attack, but the damage to such high-profile infrastructure came at a time when Russia has suffered several battlefield defeats and could further cloud the Kremlin’s messages of reassurance to its public that the conflict is going to plan.

A screen grab from a surveillance footage shows flames and smoke rising up after an explosion at the Kerch bridge in the Kerch Strait, Crimea, Oct. 8, 2022.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The reported truck explosion comes one day after Putin’s 70th birthday and at a time when the Kremlin’s months-long invasion of Ukraine has incurred a string of humiliating setbacks in recent weeks.

Images and videos shared on social media appeared to show the scale of the fire and damage.

CNBC was not able to independently verify the authenticity of these reports and images.

‘Crimea, the bridge, the beginning’

The head of the Russian-installed regional parliament in Crimea, Vladimir Konstantinov, blamed the incident on “Ukrainian vandals, who have finally managed to reach their bloody hands to the Crimean bridge,” according to the BBC.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said that the damage was “the beginning,” although stopped short of claiming Kyiv was responsible.

“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled,” Podolyak said via Twitter.

The official Twitter account of the Ukrainian government, meanwhile, appeared to respond to the incident by saying, “sick burn.”

People pose for photographs in front of a picture of a postage stamp showing an artists impression of the Kerch bridge on fire on Oct. 8, 2022 in central Kyiv, Ukraine.

Ed Ram | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Russian media reported that traffic had been suspended due to the incident and emergency and road service personnel were working at the site to contain the blaze.

“According to preliminary information, a fuel storage tank is on fire … Navigable arches were not damaged. It is too early to speak about causes and consequences. Work to extinguish the blaze is underway,” Oleg Kryuchko, an aide to the Russian occupation head of Crimea said via Telegram, according to TASS news agency.

The incident comes hours after Russia concentrated its latest barrage of attacks on areas of Ukraine it illegally annexed.

In what the West described as sham referendums, Putin declared “four new regions of Russia” late last month as Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.

Kyiv has said it will not stop fighting until it has reclaimed every last inch of land lost to Russia.

Meanwhile, Moscow has claimed it has “the right” to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory and citizens if it feels there is an existential threat, or even if it’s attacked by conventional weapons.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.