The Kremlin announced on the same day the appointment of a new general to lead its Ukraine offensive following a series of battlefield setbacks that triggered unprecedented criticism of its army at home.
The 19-kilometre bridge was hit by a blast around dawn on Saturday, killing three people, setting several oil tankers ablaze and collapsing two car lanes, Russian investigators said.
The explosion drew celebrations from Ukrainians and others on social media, mocking Putin’s 70th birthday on Friday, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made no direct mention of it in his nightly address and officials made no claim of responsibility.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin told reporters “traffic has been fully restored” on the bridge’s railway, according to state news agency Ria Novosti, without specifying when operations resumed.
Khusnullin had confirmed the resumption is for “both freight and passenger traffic” in an earlier post on Telegram, and said one of the destroyed lanes would be restored “in the near future”.
Local officials had said earlier in the day that the bridge had been reopened to motor traffic with vehicles subject to stringent screening, while rail operator Grand Service Express said the first trains had left the peninsula for Moscow and St Petersburg.
Dramatic social media footage posted less than 24 hours before Moscow’s statements showed the bridge on fire with parts plunging into the water.
Following the blast, the bodies of an unidentified man and a woman were pulled out of the water, likely passengers in a car driving near the exploded truck, Moscow said.
Authorities had identified the owner of the truck as a resident of Russia’s southern Krasnodar region, saying his home was being searched.
The bridge is logistically crucial for Moscow, a vital transport link for carrying military equipment to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
It is also hugely symbolic.
President Vladimir Putin personally inaugurated the bridge in 2018 ‒ even driving a truck across it ‒ and Moscow had maintained the crossing was safe despite the fighting.
While some in Moscow hinted at Ukrainian “terrorism”, state media continued to call it an “emergency situation”.
In his address, Zelensky spoke of a “sunny” future for Ukrainians ‒ one without occupiers, “in particular in the Crimea”.
While he made no mention of the strategic bridge, his adviser Mykhailo Podolyak earlier posted a picture on Twitter of a long section of the bridge half-submerged.
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning,” he wrote.
“Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled.”
But in a later statement, he appeared to suggest that Moscow had a hand in the blast.
“It is worth noting that the truck that detonated, according to all indications, entered the bridge from the Russian side. So the answers should be sought in Russia,” he said.
The Ukrainian post office announced it was preparing to print stamps showing the “Crimean bridge ‒ or more precisely, what remains of it”.
The Kremlin’s spokesman said Putin had ordered a commission to be set up to look into the blast.
Officials in Moscow stopped short of blaming Kyiv, but a Russian-installed official in Crimea pointed the finger at “Ukrainian vandals”.
CALLS FOR RETALIATION
Some officials in Moscow and in Russian-occupied Ukraine called for retaliation.
“There is an undisguised terrorist war against us,” Russian ruling party deputy Oleg Morozov told the RIA Novosti news agency.
A Russian-installed official in the occupied Ukrainian Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, said: “Everyone is waiting for a retaliatory strike and it is likely to come.”
Military analysts said the blast could have a major impact if Moscow saw the need to shift already hard-pressed troops to the Crimea from other regions or if it prompted a rush by residents to leave.
Mick Ryan, a retired Australian major general now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that even if Ukrainians were not behind the blast, it constituted “a massive influence operation win for Ukraine”.
“It is a demonstration to Russians, and the rest of the world, that Russia’s military cannot protect any of the provinces it recently annexed,” he said on Twitter.
Authorities in Crimea tried to calm fears of food and fuel shortages in Crimea, dependent on the Russian mainland since Moscow annexed it in 2014.
The blasts come after Ukraine’s recent lightning territorial gains in the east and south that have undermined the Kremlin’s claim that it annexed Donetsk, neighbouring Lugansk and the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
MOSCOW APPOINTS NEW GENERAL
After weeks of military setbacks, Moscow on Saturday announced that a new general ‒ Sergei Surovikin ‒ would take over its forces in Ukraine.
Surovikin previously led Russia’s forces in southern Ukraine. He has combat experience in the 1990s conflicts in Tajikistan and Chechnya, as well as, more recently, in Syria.
The decision, which ‒ unusually ‒ was made public, comes after growing discontent among the elite over the army’s leadership.
Also on Saturday, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, said Kyiv’s forces had fired at a Russian border village, injuring a teenage girl.