Technically, the explosion that destroyed all lanes of the Kerch Bridge and seriously damaged the neighboring rail bridge came a few hours too late to celebrate Vladimir Putin’s birthday. That’s not to say the timing wasn’t absolutely perfect. Because however the bridge was taken out—and that’s still very much the subject of debate—it was done just as a fuel-laden train was passing over the point of explosion. That’s the sort of coincidence that just isn’t.
The official Russian news reports blames a truck bomb for the explosion. They’ve even started cooking up a backstory. Those news reports are wrong.
As of 6AM ET (1PM in Kyiv), this is the best available footage, this video provides the best available look at what happened.
Unfortunately, the first thing that can be seen, 35 seconds into the video, is the light sensors in the camera being overloaded. For half a second, there’s nothing to see but white. When the camera can see again, there is already a fireball roughly 100m across that is blooming up past the roadway.
But even if that critical second obscures the point origin of the explosion, there’s a lot that can be seen. For one thing, none of the trucks on the highway was involved. They are all still intact when the rolling shutter on the security camera begins to paint the scene white. Careful examination of the last moments before the light flare also don’t seem to show any sign of an incoming aerial bomb or missile, though it’s possible this might have been missed.
The speed and brightness of the explosion also show that this wasn’t ammonium nitrate or some other other low-power explosive. Both the tragedy at the Murrow Building in Oklahoma City and the explosion that ripped through the Port of Beirut show the power of these explosives, but as someone who used to explode tons of this material every day, ANFO would not do this, even if you had a lot of it. Don’t bother looking for a truck, or even a barge, loaded with fertilizer.
In technical terms, low explosives are characterized by energy transferred along a flame front that propagates at a rate below the speed of sound. They deflagrate. High explosives generate a shock wave traveling well above the speed of sound. They detonate.
This was a detonation.
The shape of that detonation in its first moments suggests it came from below the highway bed. This seems to be confirmed at about 37 seconds in, where it’s possible to see smoke moving up and over the road from below the bridge on the right.
There have been suggestions that this might have happened with a missile fired at the bridge structure. If so, it was a big one. Ukraine has the R-360 Neptune missile, which is based off an earlier Soviet anti-ship missile. It packs a warhead carrying 150kg of high explosive, which is quite a lot, enough to take out a destroyer. These missiles also have a range of close to 300km, so such a missile could have been fired from somewhere southeast of Zaporizhzhia, at an area within Ukrainian control, and reached the bridge. It can’t be discounted.
However, this explosion was large. Likely larger than could be accounted for by any single anti-ship missile. Also, the timing of the explosion just as the fuel train was passing by was absolutely excellent. That doesn’t mean that there had to be humans present at the site to initiate the explosion. As the video above, and dozens of others, well illustrate, there were multiple camera views available that would have allowed someone to sit safely far away and time the moment of explosion, and that’s even if Ukraine didn’t put up a few cameras of their own.
The best explanation for what’s seen on the film is either a vessel loaded with high explosives or high explosives attached directly to the bridge support structure. It might also have been done by multiple missiles, but that would make the timing of the explosion next to the fuel train either require a lot more planning, or turn it back into amazing coincidence. My best guess would be boat.
Of course, there are other theories.
In any case, the immediate effects of the explosion are already being felt in Crimea, where the line of cars trying to make their way out of the peninsula to the north is turning into a stream and prices at the gas pumps have doubled overnight. Russian officials have said that the area has 15 days worth of fuel, which is likely an overestimate, especially when everyone there is trying to top of their tank. However, there’s no doubt that Crimea can be supplied by sea. Sea ports are kind of their thing; the reason that, other than Putin’s ego, Russia wanted Crimea in the first place.
Still, the logistics of loading material onto ships, moving them across the strait, and unloading them again is definitely more difficult than multiple trains running daily across the rail bridge. Complicating this situation is that ships are currently prohibited from sailing under any section of the damaged bridge, so any Russian shipments sitting up at Rostov-on-Don will have to be reloaded onto rail or truck and moved to points south before they can be put back on ships.
When it comes to that rail bridge, the span may be more or less intact, at least when compared to the road bridge. However, as the Associated Steel Corporation makes clear, when hardened steel is heated its properties can change. The temperatures involved in a gasoline fire along an extensive section of that rail bridge likely means all of that bridge is now unsafe, even if the wreckage is cleared and superficial damage is repaired.
How does the loss of this bridge affect Russia’s war effort in southern Ukraine? Well...
That rail line was moving a major amount of the equipment and supplies reaching southern Ukraine. The tanks, artillery, and APCs that are in Kherson today, likely came across this bridge. So did the shells they are firing.
As with all the bridges damaged in this war, the Kerch Bridge can be repaired. But it’s a large job requiring specialized equipment and it’s not going to happen in a hurry. In the meantime, Russia will be depending on other routes to move their equipment into southern Ukraine.
Looking at a large scale view of Crimea and the rest of southern Ukraine, it’s possible to see how critical the Kerch bridge was to connecting Russia, not just with Ukraine, but with Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts. Now Russia’s ability to move men and materiel across southern Ukraine leans heavily on a single route — the one that runs from Nova Kakhovka to Melitopol to Berdyansk to Mariupol and eastward into Russia. That’s the M14 highway. When it comes to rail routes, Russia’s options are less direct. Most of the lines that connect to the border end in the snarl of tracks at the Mariupol railyard. There are other lines that head northwest from the port city of Berdyansk.
Two places stand out when looking at Russia’s routing options across southern Ukraine: the large city of Melitpol, which is a hub for multiple highways and rail lines, and to a lesser extent the city of Tokmak, which is already plays the same kind of role on this front that Vovchansk did for supplying the area around Izyum.
And in another of those “gee, what a coincidence” moments, there’s been one theme playing steadily on Russia Telegram channels over the last week. One big concern. As we mentioned back on Thursday, that concern is this:
Multiple Russian sources are reporting a large build-up of Ukrainian vehicles south of the city of Zaporizhzhia in preparation for what looks to be the opening of a third counteroffensive. Russian forces are also reporting, disgustedly, that their leadership seems to be making no move to prepare for this new counter-invasion into what Vladimir Putin so recently declared “Russian territory.”
Those same Russian sources put the target of this could-be counteroffensive as Melitopol. Or possibly all the way down at Berdyansk.
In any case, an attack that threatened that M14 highway route would immediately become the center of the war. With the Kerch Bridge out of action, any threat to that line would represent a existential threat to Russia’s invasion force to the west — and a not insubstantial threat to Russia’s continued presence in Crimea.
Does that mean Ukraine is about to launch an attack from Zaporizhzhia? As kos has pointed out, it’s unlikely Ukraine has the artillery (among other things) it needs to support opening up a third front. Frankly, operational security is keeping us from hearing the details of what’s happening in Kherson and Luhansk at the moment, but you can bet if Ukraine’s forces were advancing 20km a day, we would know about it. Opsec is tight because Ukraine’s situation in those areas is tense, and knowledge of maneuver is valuable.
Maybe that’s because Ukraine has pulled enough troops to form a third attack, right into the heart of southern Ukraine, right after they’ve delivered both a huge strategic and motivational blow. Or maybe they just because they want Russia to think that’s what they’re going to do, to speed along Russia’s departure from Luhansk or Kherson.
As usual … stay tuned.
Ah, it seems like we have a counter-theory to Godzilla attack.
In the phrasing of a great Russian patriot … what dolphin do?
Another day, another Russian commander in Ukraine. Suvorikin has experience of losing before, as he served during Russia’s time in Afghanistan. And he has the biggest qualification any Russian military leader could have—a conviction for illegally selling weapons. Since June, Suvorikin has been the commander of Russia’s group “South” with responsibility for Kherson, Zaporzhzhia, and southern Donetsk.
There are also reports of Russia sending a test train down the tracks, though that seems very unlikely at this hour. Rails are not a roadway, and the heat of the fire not only damaged the strength of the steel structure, it almost certainly distorted the rails. Additionally, the amount of debris on the rail has to be immense. So for the moment I’m discounting claims, even the ones that come a video of a train leaving the station, that indicate Russia is resuming rail service.
Ukraine’s daily reporting of Russian losses was optimistic in early months, but has come to be a good match for observed losses.
Just restating the obvious, here’s why I don’t believe a truck bomb was involved, no matter what kind of backstory is being passed around or how many suspects get named. First, here’s the last full frame immediately before the explosion.
One frame later, the CCD sensor in the camera is already becoming saturated. As the rolling shutter moves up the screen, the light levels are overwhelmed.
Even in this partial frame, the trucks have advanced over the last full frame and are not distorted. None of the vehicles in this scene is the source for the light.
As soon as light levels are reduced enough for the camera to operate, a cloud of debris can be seen appearing off the right of the roadway and being thrown up and left across the area where the vehicles had been. Also, the cooler, darker portion of the explosion is below and right of the roadway, while the traveling wave is moving up and left.
Everything suggests that the explosion was not centered on the road, but originated somewhere below the roadbed and off to one side.
Here are cars being directed through that one damaged and untrustworthy lane — and the very not open railway.
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