Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of carrying out a “terrorist attack” against the bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia, a key military supply route for its invasion of Ukraine and symbol of Russian prestige.
Russia’s president said there was “no doubt” that Ukraine was behind the explosion, which sent two of the bridge’s road spans crashing into the sea and set off a fire that left clouds of smoke billowing over the peninsula on Saturday morning.
In a video released by the Kremlin on Sunday, Putin accused “Ukrainian secret services” of carrying out the assault, which he described as a “terrorist attack aimed at destroying critical Russian civilian infrastructure”.
Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the attack, though officials did post several comments mocking Russia on social media and the Ukrainian post office has issued a commemorative stamp.
The Russian president will hold a meeting of his security council on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Russian state media outlets.
The attack on the 12-mile Crimean bridge, which Russian investigators have said was caused by a truck filled with explosives and killed three people, is a major embarrassment to Putin as Ukraine continues to push back Russia’s forces in the south-east.
Russia now claims four regions of Ukraine as its own territory after staging local referendums that have been widely labelled a sham, then annexing them in a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin.
Ukraine has launched a major counteroffensive, recapturing swaths of the region, and appears to have carried out several audacious strikes deep behind enemy lines.
Hardline Russian war supporters have called on Moscow to retaliate by striking key civilian infrastructure in Ukraine like bridges or dams. Putin has also threatened to use “all the means at our disposal” to defend the territory he claims as Russia, raising the threat he could strike Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons.
Peskov said it was “completely incorrect” to suggest Moscow could respond by using nuclear weapons, according to Ria Novosti.
Earlier on Sunday, Russian missiles pounded residential areas in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, killing 20 and injuring dozens while several apartment blocks were left in ruins.
Ukraine’s State Emergency Service and local Zaporizhzhia news outlets published videos and pictures of residents evacuating flaming buildings during the night, and of rescue crews searching for survivors.
“Merciless strikes on peaceful people again. On residential buildings, just in the middle of the night,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Absolute evil.”
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba called for more military assistance from the West. “We urgently need more modern air and missile defence systems to save innocent lives. I urge partners to speed up deliveries,” he tweeted.
The latest attack comes as Russia struggles to maintain its grip on areas of southern Ukraine it occupied at the war’s outset in February. It was the second blow to Zaporizhzhia in the space of a week after a missile attack on a residential building on Thursday left thee people dead.
“Our Zaporizhzhia rescuers have had a difficult week,” Serhiy Kruk, chief of the State Emergency Service, wrote on Telegram. His office reported rescue operations were still under way in the afternoon, and dogs had been brought in to help search for people trapped under the rubble. City council official Anatoliy Kurtev said on Telegram that “about 20 residential buildings and 50 high-rise buildings were damaged” as well as four schools.
Putin annexed Russian-occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia region in late September, but the city itself has remained outside of Moscow’s control. Russia has not been able to clarify how much of Kherson and of the Zaporizhzhia region and city it claims as its territory.
Saturday’s explosion on the Crimean bridge left a section of the structure’s motorway submerged and set a fuel cargo train passing on the parallel railway bridge on fire.
Late on Saturday, Russian officials scrambled to portray the damage to the Crimean bridge as insignificant, limited to one motorway carriageway rather than taking out the entire transport link.
State media showed train travel restarting on the railway line, including of passenger trains. Cars were also permitted to start crossing the bridge again.
Russian deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin and Sergei Aksyonov, the Russian-appointed head of the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Kyiv in 2014, visited the bridge at night and spoke about next steps in a bid to focus the narrative on reconstruction.
Khusnullin said a team of divers would assess the scale of the damage to the underwater structure of the bridge, while others would report on visible impairments above the water, including the one submerged motorway section.
“We are surveying the destroyed part, the first results will be available [on Sunday],” the deputy prime minister said. “I gave an order to draw up the timetable of reconstruction within a day. We do not expect any interruptions with supplies. Ferry crossings will work, and after the survey we will understand whether we can allow trucks on the bridge.”
The bridge is a key military supply route for Russian troops in occupied southern Ukraine, and the damage to the bridge could seriously constrain Russia in the area, helping Ukraine to expand its counteroffensive.
Russian defence officials sought to downplay the risks, saying Moscow’s forces would be “fully supplied” using other routes by land or by sea.
The head of the city of Sevastopol on Crimea told residents to keep calm, while Aksyonov, the Crimean governor, said the peninsula had enough fuel to last a month. Queues had already formed at petrol stations on Saturday.
“The situation is manageable — it’s unpleasant, but not fatal,” Aksyonov said. He said the peninsula also had enough food supplies to last over two months.