Bridge is only direct link to mainland Russia from Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014
17 July 2023
The Kerch Bridge connecting the Crimean Peninsula to Russia has been closed after explosions in the early hours of Monday killed two people and injured a child.
Where is the Kerch Bridge?
The Kerch Bridge, also known as the Crimean Bridge, was built by Russia after it invaded and de-facto annexed the peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The 12-mile bridge, which includes a separate roadway and railway, spans the Kerch Strait and connects Crimea with mainland Russia. The construction was announced in 2014 and completed in 2018. The bridge holds great symbolic importance for the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin celebrated the opening of the bridge by driving a Kamaz truck from Kerch to Crimea and telling workers they had performed “a miracle”.
There were reports of several explosions targeting the bridge at around 3am on Monday. Video taken from the adjacent railway bridge showed the blasts had shorn off a section of the road bridge near pillar 145, making it impossible for traffic to cross that section. Russia claimed there was no damage to the pillars themselves, which would have required extensive repairs. A married couple were killed and their 14-year-old daughter was injured in the blast. Russian officials said her life was not in danger.
This is the second time the bridge has been hit by an explosion since Russia’s full-scale invasion. In October, a truck bomb detonated on the bridge, causing several spans of roadway to collapse into the water.
Russia blamed Ukraine for that explosion, but Kyiv has not taken responsibility for it. Russia moved quickly to complete the repairs, with Putin driving a Mercedes over the bridge in early December and the formal reopening to road traffic taking place in late February.
How was Monday’s attack carried out?
Early reports suggest the attack was done through several unmanned, explosive-carrying amphibious vehicles, or sea drones, that were directed to the bridge and then detonated from beneath the roadway. Russia has blamed the attack on Ukraine, with the national anti-terrorist committee, a security services agency, saying: “Two Ukrainian unmanned underwater vehicles carried out an attack on the Crimean Bridge.”
Ukraine has not publicly taken responsibility for the attack and has a policy of disavowing attacks in Crimea and raids into mainland Russia. Aerial and seaborne unmanned vehicles have been used in previous attacks on Russian bases and the Black Sea fleet in Crimea. Some officials have hinted that the attack was carried out by Ukrainian special forces. In a post on Telegram, the SBU Security Service of Ukraine wrote: “The bridge has gone to sleep again.” A military intelligence spokesperson called the bridge a “superfluous structure”.
How is Russia defending the bridge?
Since the October attack, Russia has employed extraordinary security measures to defend the structure. Tourists travelling to Crimea during the holiday season reported queueing for hours as security forces checked every vehicle crossing the bridge for explosives. Russia beefed up anti-air defences to prevent an aerial or missile attack on the bridge. It also reportedly deployed a “target barge” with radar reflectors meant to act as a decoy for any guided missiles targeting the bridge. And in the wider region, the Russian navy has reportedly built new pens for dolphins trained at military facilities to protect its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol (the dolphins have been trained to target enemy divers).
Before the war, Russia claimed the bridge was “comprehensively protected on the ground, from the air and from the water and under the water”. In remarks to the Tass news agency, the Russian National Guard chief, Viktor Zolotov, said anti-saboteur boats patrolled the waters adjacent to the bridge and combat swimmers were deployed to check the waters beneath it.
Some Ukrainian officials used those heightened defences to deflect questions about whether Kyiv was behind the attack.
According to a translation by NBC, Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern command, told Ukrainian media: “Given the unprecedented security measures that the Russians have been taking for a long time around the Crimean Bridge, they most likely controlled this entire situation and it continues to unfold according to the script programmed by them.”
What is the result of the attack?
The attack is a blow to the Kremlin’s prestige and is the latest blowback from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on to territories that Moscow claims to control. Russian tourists wanting to leave the peninsula are being rerouted through newly occupied Russian territories in south-east Ukraine. The bridge is the only direct transport route that goes between mainland Russia and Crimea, although Russia can also supply the peninsula via its occupied territories or ferries from Kerch. The extent of the damage to the roadway bridge is still unclear, and the railway bridge, which carries freight that could include military vehicles and equipment, appears not to be affected.
Andrew Roth is the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent. Stanford University, BA in mathematics and Slavic languages and literature; MA in Russian, East European and Eurasian studies. Andrew Roth was a reporter in The Washington Post’s bureau in Moscow. He left The Post in February 2018. He covered politics and society in the region since 2011, reporting on a variety of topics, including conflict and contemporary art, in the diverse republics of the former Soviet Union. Languages spoken in addition to English: Russian