Screenshot showing a burning tanker train on the Kerch Bridge's rail span. Out of image on left, the bridge's road span has been dropped into the sea. Image: Twitter / Screengrab

In what looks like a spectacular espionage operation, the Kerch Strait Bridge, which links Russia proper to the annexed Crimean peninsula, was heavily damaged and at least partly cut in an October 8 dawn explosion.

Footage allegedly from CCTV on the bridge and circulating on social media shows a truck driving across one of the bridge’s two road spans exploding. Subsequent footage and photos show two sections of at least one of the road spans have collapsed into the sea.

On the adjacent rail span, a tanker train is furiously blazing. It is unclear if the fire will cause enough structural damage to drop the rail span of the 18-kilometer-long bridge – the longest in both Russia and Europe – into the Black Sea.

The incident happened around 6:00 am on Saturday, according to the footage and reports. Russian media Russia Today cited the nation’s Anti-Terrorist Committee, which called the incident a “truck bombing.” RT subsequently reported that the fire in the fuel train has been extinguished, that a damage assessment is being conducted and that ferries will operate while the bridge is closed.

Kiev, which has made no secret of wanting to take out the bridge, has not claimed responsibility. However, Mikhail Podoliakaide, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has said via Telegram – albeit, without taking any credit for the attack – that the bridge is “just the beginning” and that everything Russian in Ukraine “must be destroyed.”

A high-profile Russian TV commentator had warned on October 7 that Ukraine was planning something to spoil President Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday, which fell on that day.

Both timing and logic – i.e. the truck exploded on the road span just as a fuel train was passing on the rail span – suggest either a brilliantly executed strike on an ammunition truck or a very well-executed sabotage operation with a truck bomb, rather than a random, coincidental accident.

Russian authorities have called it a truck bomb, and a carefully planned espionage operation by Ukrainian special forces and/or partisans who planted a device inside the truck, or even a suicide bomber who drove it, look feasible. If so, it may leave none of the visual or radar fingerprints of an air, naval, missile or drone strike.

Like the mysterious damage to the NordStream gas pipeline which has – as yet – left no clues as to the attacker, it could prove to be a deniable operation. The keen Tweeters of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry have not, at time of writing, commented.

The bridge’s insurance value is reportedly US$3 billion, though its brand value – it is both a real and symbolic link between Russian and Crimea – may be even pricier.

Such severe damage to such a strategic national asset – which should, surely, have been secured with utmost vigilance? – is the latest in a long line of humiliations for an embattled Kremlin.

But it is also a logistical blow to Russian forces. Crack troops in a fortified bridgehead north of Crimea, around the city of Kherson on the left bank of the Dnieper, are fighting for their lives.

Russian forces in southern Ukraine still maintain a land corridor to the homeland via a broad span of captured territory along the Azov Sea. Still, if the Kerch bridge is, indeed, cut, it will hamper Russian operations north of the Crimean peninsula.

Footage from Twitter of the detonation.

Golden target, deadly weapon  

The bridge has long been considered a key target by both military pundits and Ukrainian social media warriors. Feasibly Ukrainian missiles, aircraft, UAVs, long-range artillery, commandos, partisans or some combination thereof could have provided an attack package.

NATO has given Ukraine medium-range, satellite-networked precision missiles that offer pinpoint accuracy and have been used to shock effect on Russia’s echelon. But as the Kerch Bridge has enormous “red line” sensitivity for the Kremlin, NATO has so far declined to supply Kiev with long-range precision missiles capable of hitting it.

But Ukraine has been very, very keen to destroy the structure. A Ukrainian general in June called the bridge “target number one” if Kiev could only obtain the weapons to destroy it.

A truck packed with explosives – a weapon used to devastating impact by Middle Eastern militants, notably in the destruction of a US Marine barrack in Beirut in 1984, killing 241 Americans – may have offered Ukrainian war planners the perfect solution.

As per the footage on social media, the explosion from the truck appears to have been channeled downward to drop the road bridge. It cannot be proven that a sympathetic detonation from the truck caused the tanker train to catch fire, but it seems possible.

“There are several ways to do it – it can be a suicide bomber,” Michael Yon, a former US special forces soldier, told Asia Times. “Another way is trickery: There is a bomb in the truck and someone drives it to the target, and it is radio detonated. Or coercion: Sometime we would find people handcuffed to steering wheels, or they would be like, ‘We have got your family.’”

To pass security before getting onto the bridge proper, Yon, who reported multiple car and truck bombings during his post-army career as a combat reporter in Afghanistan and Iraq, suggested the truck was likely loaded with civil, but highly combustible, materials.

“It could have been loaded up with fertilizer, maybe ammonium nitrate, and you put in fuel oil, maybe some high explosive, then you set it off,” he said. “This sounds to me like sabotage – get the bridge and get the train at the same time, hit multiple targets.”

The bridge was a triumph of Russian engineering. Having annexed Crimea in 2014, the peninsula required a lifeline land connection to Russia, which the bridge provided. Construction began in 2016 and was completed in 2019.

The timing of the incident could hardly be worse for Putin himself. Just one day after his 70th birthday, it is the latest evidence that he has lost control of his “special military operation,” as disasters and defeats pile up.

Russian forces succeeded in a massive land grab in the opening days of the war, stormed the city of Mariupol in hellish combat and took key cities via grinding assault in the Donbas in the summer. But, otherwise, the reputation of the once-vaunted Russian professional armed forces has taken hit after hit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is under pressure. Photo: Twitter

Russian fury versus dwindling options

A shambolic, multi-pronged assault was beaten back from the gates of Kiev. The Black Sea fleet lost both its flagship and the strategic Snake Island. Russian forces have now lost the operational initiative as Ukrainian forces advance on both the northeastern and southern fronts.

In the northeast, massive swathes of territory are being recaptured by the Ukrainians. But Russian losses of men in an area of vast strategic depth are not crippling. In the south, a far more serious situation looms.

There, Ukrainian forces have broken into the fortified Russian bridgehead at Kherson where 20,000-25,000 of Russia’s best troops are fighting with the Dnieper at their back. And while Kharkiv Oblast is not a target of Russian annexations, Kherson Oblast is.  

Meanwhile, at home, a partial mobilization of 300,000 Russian reservists has been chaotic, with the Kremlin having to rein in regional bureaucracies that were press-ganging civilians rather than bringing in ex-military professionals.

And in Ukraine, questionable referenda conducted in captured oblasts are being invalidated by facts on the ground as Ukrainian troops continue their advance into territories that the Kremlin now claims as parts of Russia.

The danger now is of an escalation sparked by Russian anger. A large community of military bloggers, Donbas combat veterans and Russian ultranationalists, more aggressive than Putin himself, is on the fringe but increasingly vocal.

This community has long been arguing for a more ruthless prosecution of the war and has recently grown louder. Today’s events will almost certainly give their voice increased stridency.

Even so, it is unclear at this point what more could be done – beyond ramping up the destruction of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure via more hands-off air, artillery and missile campaigns.

Another possibility is to follow Ukraine’s example and go to a full-scale national conscription mobilization rather the current partial reservist mobilization – but that would take months.

Meanwhile, despite considerable fears being aired in global media of the possible use of tactical nuclear arms, no clear outcome from such an escalation appears visible.

Ukrainian forces are not concentrated enough to be wiped out en masse, and the “grid square removal” of logistic nodes in a terrain as a vast as Ukraine also looks unlikely to deliver a winning blow.

Granted, Russian forces do include nuclear as part of their escalation doctrine and train accordingly. But it is far from clear whether a force as ramshackle as Russia’s expeditionary one in Ukraine has proven has maintained the kit necessary to survive and conduct operations in a hot zone.

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