18 Jul 2023

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine reach new heights amid a mysterious bridge explosion in Crimea and a torn-up grain deal

10:06 am on 18 July 2023
This video grab taken from a ?rimea24TV footage on July 17, 2023 shows the damaged Kerch bridge -- linking Crimea to Russia -- which was heavily damaged following an attack. Russia on July 17, 2023, said a Ukrainian attack on the bridge linking Moscow-annexed Crimea to the Russian mainland killed a civilian couple and wounded their child. Moscow said two drones had hit the bridge in the early hours and blamed "the Kyiv regime." (Photo by Crimea24TV / AFP)

This video grab taken from Crimea24TV footage on 17 July shows the damaged Kerch bridge - linking Crimea to Russia - which was heavily damaged following an attack. Photo: Crimea24TV / AFP

By Rebecca Armitage in London

A pre-dawn attack on a bridge linking mainland Russia to occupied Crimea has dealt a blow to the Kremlin's war effort in southern Ukraine.

The incident is still shrouded in mystery, but explosions were heard near the strategically significant Kerch bridge in the early hours of the morning.

Russian officials claimed that a couple driving across the 19-kilometre bridge died in the "emergency", while their daughter was injured.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had branded the incident a "terrorist attack" carried out by Ukrainian security services.

This is the second time in nine months that the bridge has been damaged.

The latest attack is sure to come as an embarrassment to Putin, who staved off a mutiny by his mercenary warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin just last month.

While rail service has resumed, Russia is encouraging its holiday-makers in Crimea to drive the long way home through occupied Ukraine rather than use the bridge.

The incident will also squeeze a vital supply line for Russian troops in the country's south.

Here's everything you need to know.

Was the bridge hit with water drones?

Russian authorities claim that Ukraine attacked the Kerch bridge with two "unmanned surface vessels" (USVs) - a claim that has not been independently verified.

Sometimes called drone boats or underwater drones, USVs come in many different shapes and sizes, but all travel across water without a crew.

USVs have been critical to Ukraine's military strategy since Russia invaded its borders in early 2022.

In October last year, a swarm of Ukrainian drones skimmed across the surface of the water to cause severe damage to Russia's frigate Admiral Makarov.

After the attack on the bridge overnight, Russia has been forced to halt traffic while engineers assess the damage.

Verified images taken at the scene show damage to both sides of the road, with one section almost sheared off and slumping towards the Black Sea.

Russia's transport ministry says the bridge is still structurally sound and the pillars escaped unscathed.

Still, it will take time to get the bridge up and running again.

Crimea is a popular tourist destination for Russians, and without the bridge, tourists will have to drive overland through occupied Ukraine to get home.

This will also cause great inconvenience to the Russian military, which relies on the bridge to get supplies to its troops in southern Ukraine.

Why is this bridge so important to Putin?

It is hard to overstate how much this bridge means, both strategically and symbolically, to the Kremlin.

Crimea is internationally recognised as Ukrainian territory, but Russia invaded and illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014.

Putin immediately ordered the construction of a bridge to link Russia to his newly claimed territory.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was the Russian president's passion project and many within Russia referred to it as "Putin's bridge".

When the AU$5.18 billion (NZ$5.5b) infrastructure project was completed in 2018, Putin christened the bridge by driving across it in a bright orange dump-truck adorned with Russian flags.

"I sincerely congratulate you on this remarkable, celebratory and historic in the full sense of the word, day," he said to his engineers at the ceremony.

"Thanks to your labour, to your talent, this miracle has been achieved."

When he ordered his troops across the border last year to try to capture the rest of Ukraine, the Kerch bridge became a vital supply military line.

Its personal and strategic value to Putin has made it a high-value target for Ukraine in the past.

Last October, on the same day the Russian president celebrated his 70th birthday, a fuel tanker exploded and destroyed a large section of the bridge.

Ukraine's military was coy at the time about their involvement.

But earlier this month, the country's Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar appeared to confirm Ukraine was behind the attack.

She wrote on Telegram that "[we] launched the first strike on the Crimean bridge to disrupt Russian logistics".

Tensions spiral over bridge and grain deal

Russia has condemned the incident, placing the blame squarely on Ukraine.

The country's foreign ministry also claimed, without evidence, that the plot was carried out "with the direct participation of American and British intelligence agencies and politicians".

Hours after the blasts, the Kremlin withdrew its support for a year-old deal brokered by the UN and Türkiye (Turkey) that let Ukraine export grain through the Black Sea.

Russia insists it did not rip up the deal as a reprisal for the bridge attack, instead claiming its demands have not been met to ease rules for its own fertiliser and food exports.

Ukraine has been the world's largest supplier of wheat and sunflower oil. In peacetime, it produced enough grain to feed 400 million people.

UN chief Antonio Guterres blasted Russia for imperilling the deal.

"Hundreds of millions of people face hunger and consumers are confronting a global cost-of-living crisis. They will pay the price," he said.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of using food as a "weapon" and trying to hold millions of people "hostage".

Ukraine remains coy on bridge and defiant on grain

Ukraine has remained characteristically ambiguous on its involvement in the latest bridge attack.

"Any illegal structures used to deliver Russian instruments of mass murder are necessarily short-lived," presidential political adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.

A source within Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) told CNN the assault was a joint operation coordinated by the SBU and Ukraine's naval forces.

Publicly though, the SBU is remaining coy.

"We are watching with interest as one of the symbols of Putin's regime once again failed to withstand the military load," SBU spokesman Artem Dekhtiarenko told AFP.

While Russia insists its decision to withdraw from the grain deal is final, Türkiye's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says all hope is not lost.

"Despite the statement made today, I believe Russian President Putin wants the continuation of this humanitarian bridge," Erdoğan said.

"We will also discuss how we can act to open the way for the transport of Russian fertiliser and grain."

Whatever happens next, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky remains defiant.

"We are not afraid," he said.

"We were approached by companies who own vessels and they're willing to continue shipping grain if Ukraine agrees to let them in and Türkiye to pass them through."

This story was originally published by ABC.

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