As a chilly autumn dawn broke on Saturday over the Kerch bridge linking Russia-occupied Crimea to the mainland, the road traffic was light.
With the sky turning pink, a few cars and several lorries were making their way across the bridge, which is about 12 miles (19km) long and before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was used by 15,000 cars a day,
A little way distant and above the cars, a long cargo train carrying tankers of fuel among its wagons was also making its way towards the peninsula across the parallel railway bridge.
The blast, when it came at 6.07am (3.07 GMT), was devastating. CCTV footage posted on Russian Telegram channels showed a car and a lorry moving almost together when a vast fireball engulfed them, orange mixed with a storm of white-hot fragments swirling around the span.
On the train tracks above, the powerful blast wave ruptured the fuel tanks, releasing a waterfall of burning fuel as the road carriageway buckled and collapsed. One of the supports, with its twin reinforced concrete pillars and pedestal, apparently evaporated.
According to Russian officials, the cause of the explosion was a lorry bomb, a claim as yet unconfirmed and greeted by some experts with scepticism, with the centre of the blast in the Ukraine-bound lane of the road bridge. Within minutes, images were circulating on Ukrainian and Russian social media channels and soon being posted around the world.
Long threatened, the hated $4bn Russian symbol of Moscow’s occupation of Crimea – one that Russia had boasted was impossible to attack – had been blown up.
The symbolism of the moment – a day after Russian president Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday and just over a week after he announced the illegal annexation of four more Ukrainian territories amid huge pomp in Moscow – was lost on nobody.
In a statement, the Russian national anti-terrorism committee said the explosion happened in a freight lorry and caused seven fuel tanker wagons to catch fire. Sergei Aksyonov, the Russian governor of Crimea, said on social media that the road bridge was still intact in one direction, although traffic was suspended while the damage was assessed.
Leaked messages from Russian officials to the local media obtained by the news website Meduza, however, underlined how state media was being instructed to say the bridge was “not destroyed, only damaged”.
In Kyiv, where military officials declined to comment, the mood was a mixture of exultation and wondering about how Russia would reply, not least after its recent nuclear posturing.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, appeared to suggest Kyiv’s responsibility, tweeting obliquely: “Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything belonging to the Russian occupation must be expelled.”
For his part, the head of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, Oleksiy Danilov, posted a video of the burning bridge on social media alongside a video of Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday, Mr President.
A dozen miles long and taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Kerch bridge was the jewel in the crown of Putin’s infrastructure projects – described by Russian media as the “construction of the century” intended to reify Russia’s claimed ownership of Crimea.
When Putin opened the bridge on 15 May 2018, driving an orange Kamaz lorry across it, he boasted: “In different historical epochs, even under the tsar priests, people dreamed of building this bridge. Then they returned to this [idea] in the 1930s, the 40s, the 50s. And finally, thanks to your work and your talent, the miracle has happened.”
Heavily defended since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it was seen as important enough for Moscow to warn of reprisals if it was targeted as a key transport link for carrying military equipment to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine, especially in the south, as well as for ferrying troops to the frontlines.
But it is not simply the fact this is Putin’s bridge that underlines the symbolism. The blast has real-term consequences too for Putin’s war, coming hard on the heels of a series of humiliating defeats on the eastern and southern fronts that has seen large-scale Russian retreats.
It comes too amid mounting nuclear brinkmanship by Moscow and a barely a week after Putin signed the decree illegally claiming to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces.
It is a key logistical supply line not only for Russian forces in the occupied Crimea but also elsewhere in southern Ukraine, where Putin’s troops have been in retreat in recent days, even as the main supply line from mainland Russia, including a train line to Melitopol, has come under increasing Ukrainian pressure, with strikes on a railway depot a few hours earlier.
The significance of the attack was also not lost on residents in Crimea, who – as news spread – rushed to petrol stations to fill up their cars as all trains and buses were cancelled.
And while there are other ways of supplying Crimea, including via its ports, damage to the bridge is hugely important to a place that until very recently was seen by Russia as being beyond the reach of Ukraine.
That has changed in recent months, however. After an attack on the naval airbase at Saky in August Russian tourists fled Crimea’s beaches, creating huge traffic jams with miles-long tailbacks on the Kerch bridge. Some Russian naval forces appear also to have been discreetly redeployed as the war has inched ever closer.
How Moscow responds is the big question, but one that has been looming ever more powerfully in recent weeks as Ukraine has successfully pressed its counteroffensive and amid mounting disquiet among Russian elites and commentators over the conduct of Putin’s war.
Within hours, Russian hardliners were calling for strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure and “decision-making centres”. Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch, Putin backer and extreme nationalist, posted a picture on his social media channels of five Ukrainian bridges with a caption addressed to Russia’s military leadership: “Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov. Don’t miss.”
The Kremlin was already facing unprecedented criticism from nationalists and pro-war bloggers, who were berating its leadership for the army’s recent military failures in Ukraine.
Zakhar Prilepin, a conservative Russian novelist and Ukraine war veteran, urged the authorities to announce a full-scale economic mobilisation. “This gives us a chance. Mobilisation in all spheres should finally begin. In all, I say, spheres, and I am talking not only about soldiers going to the front,” he wrote on Telegram.
Other pro-Russian bloggers were pointing to a July speech by Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev in which he vouched that an attack on Crimea would trigger a “doomsday” response. “So what now, Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev]?” wrote Aleksandr Kots, a pro-Kremlin journalist who travels with the Russian army
And faced with renewed pressure from the right, it seems certain Putin will now be forced to find a response to what already looks like one of the most embarrassing incidents since the start of the war.
“The confidence that Putin knows what he is doing is diminishing even further,” said Anton Barbashin, a political analyst at the Riddle news site. “Either Putin responds or he risks further eroding his legitimacy among hawks in Russia.”
In the immediate first response to the bridge blast, the Kremlin announced a new overall commander of its forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, an officer with a reputation for brutality and corruption, whose appointment will be welcomed by hardliners.