In a major blow for Russia, a fuel tank explosion early Saturday caused part of Europe’s longest bridge that links Russia to the annexed territory of Crimea to collapse, according to Russian officials.
Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately ordered a “government commission” to examine the Kerch Bridge “emergency” in Crimea, Russian state media TASS reported.
The heads of Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations and the Ministry of Transport are now at the scene of the incident, according to TASS.
Sergey Aksenov, the Russian-appointed Head of Crimea, confirmed that “two spans of the roadbed of the part [of the bridge] from Krasnodar to Kerch, collapsed” after a large explosion.
Aksenov said that “at the same time, fuel tanks caught fire. Now two locomotives are approaching” to remove the burning train, he said. Video and images from the bridge show several charred rail fuel trucks.
“As soon as the fire is extinguished, it will be possible to assess the extent of damage to the bridge and pillars, and it will be possible to talk about the timing of the restoration of traffic,” Aksenov said.
Images of the Kerch bridge posted on social media appear to show a portion of the roadway of the vehicle and rail bridge had fallen into the waters below it. Flames are seen burning from rail cars above.
The tanker was located on the 19-kilometer (11 mile) long bridge – strategically important because it links Russia’s Krasnodar region with the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014.
The bridge spans the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, on which sit key Ukrainian ports, including Mariupol.
The source of the explosion remains unclear. It’s also unclear if anyone has been injured.
For Russia, the bridge symbolizes the physical “reunification” of Crimea with the Russian mainland.
No further details on the timing or scope of the commission have been announced. The decision comes after Putin “received reports from [Russian Prime Minister] Mikhail Mishustin, [Russian Deputy Prime Minister] Marat Khusnullin, the heads of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Ministry of Transport, and heads of law enforcement agencies in connection with the emergency on the Crimean bridge,” TASS reported, citing Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
Russian state media RIA Novosti said that there are “no projections for the timing of the restoration of the Crimean bridge yet,” also citing Peskov.
Work is “underway to extinguish the fire,” the adviser to the Russian administration head of occupied Crimea, Oleg Kryunchkov, said in a Telegram post, adding that the bridge’s “shipping arches were not damaged.”
An official in Crimea blamed “Ukrainian vandals” for the explosion on Kerch bridge in a post on Telegram.
“Ukrainian vandals somehow managed to get their bloody paws on the Crimean bridge. And now they have something to be proud of, in 23 years of their economic activity, they did not manage to build anything deserving of interest in Crimea. But they did succeed in damaging the roadbed of the Russian bridge,” Chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea Vladimir Konstantinov said.
“Such is the whole essence of the Kiev regime and the Ukrainian state … Of course, the causes of the accident will be investigated, and the damage will be repaired swiftly,” he added.
CNN cannot independently verify Konstantinov’s claim.
Ukrainian officials responded to the explosion Saturday without directly acknowledging that Ukraine was responsible for the explosion.
“Air defense of the Russian Federation, are you sleeping?” the Navy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said on Facebook, alongside a video showing a section of the bridge’s road that had been completely destroyed.
“Russian illegal construction is starting to collapse and catch fire. The reason is simple: if you build something explosive, sooner or later, it will explode. And this is just the beginning,” David Arakhamia, the head of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s party in parliament and a member of Kyiv’s negotiating team with Russia, said in a Telegram statement about the incident
In an interview in August, a senior Ukrainian military commander said the Kerch bridge was a legitimate target.
“This is a necessary measure in order to deprive them (Russia) of the opportunity to provide reserves and reinforce their troops from Russian territory,” Maj. Gen. Dmytro Marchenko said in an interview with RBC-Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a cargo train in Ilovaisk in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region was hit by a “powerful explosion” Saturday morning, according to the adviser to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andrushenko.
“Not only Crimea. Not only fuel tanks. There is also a cargo train in Ilovaisk. Locals report a rather powerful explosion and subsequent detonation at night. The occupiers now have big problems with supplies from both sides,” Andrushenko said.
Pro-Russian authorities in the self-declared republic of Donetsk confirmed the cargo train incident, releasing video Saturday showing the fire’s aftermath at a local railway station.
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden expressed caution about the dangers stemming from Putin’s nuclear threats as his military continued to experience military setbacks in Ukraine.
“First time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use (of a) nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going,” Biden warned Thursday evening during remarks at a Democratic fundraiser in New York
He added: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily (use) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.
“I’m trying to figure out what is Putin’s off ramp?” Biden said during the event, “Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position that he does not not only lose face but lose significant power within Russia?”
The Kerch bridge is able to handle 40,000 cars a day and to move 14 million passengers and 13 million tons of cargo per year, state news agency RIA Novosti reported when the bridge opened in 2018.
After the bridge opened, the United States condemned its construction as illegal.
“Russia’s construction of the bridge serves as a reminder of Russia’s ongoing willingness to flout international law,” according to a US State Department statement at the time.
“The bridge represents not only an attempt by Russia to solidify its unlawful seizure and its occupation of Crimea, but also impedes navigation by limiting the size of ships that can transit the Kerch Strait, the only path to reach Ukraine’s territorial waters in the Sea of Azov.”
Ukrainian officials echoed those sentiments following the explosion.
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled,” Mykhailo Podoliak, who serves as an adviser Ukraine’s leader.