KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An explosion damaged a bridge that is one of the few links between Crimea and Ukraine’s mainland, Russia-backed officials said Thursday, while Ukraine’s prime minister appealed for patience as Kyiv’s armed forces move ahead with their closely watched counteroffensive.
Russian forces in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, use the Chongar bridge to reach southern Ukraine’s Kherson province. Russia and Ukraine control different sides of the province, which is a focus of fighting and attacks as Ukrainian troops try to reclaim Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian authorities have said that for the country’s nearly 16-month war to end, Moscow must withdraw its forces from Crimea as well as from areas they seized during last year’s full-scale invasion.
The damage to the bridge was not severe and likely will be repaired within several days, according to Vladimir Konstantinov, chairman of Crimea’s parliament.
Vladimir Saldo, who heads the Russian-occupied parts of Kherson province, said the explosion appeared to have been caused by a type of long-range cruise missile that both France and the U.K. have given to Ukraine’s military.
The claim could not be independently verified. Numerous military analysts have said recent Ukrainian actions in the country’s south and east indicated that Kyiv’s troops were in the beginning of a long-anticipated counteroffensive.
Asked about the reported damage to the Chongar Bridge, Andrii Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense Main Intelligence Directorate, did not confirm Ukraine’s involvement but said on TV that a blow to the span would be part of an “ongoing process.”
“If the stars are lit, it means it was done for a reason, right? We can only say that there will be a continuation,” Yusov said, paraphrasing the opening of a well-known work by Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovskyi.
Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti cited an unnamed representative of Russia’s Investigative Committee as saying Thursday that preliminary information indicates there were four missiles fired and the remains of one of them showed markings of being French-made.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu alleged this week that Ukraine planned to use U.S.-made HIMARS and U.K.-provided Storm Shadow missiles to attack Russian territory, including Crimea. He warned that use of those missiles against targets outside the main war zone would “trigger immediate strikes on the decision-making centers on the territory of Ukraine.”
However, Shoigu on Thursday downplayed the importance of West-supplied advanced weapons like the Storm Shadow missiles.
“We understand that the quantity that will be delivered in 2023 and has already been delivered will not significantly affect the course of hostilities,” he said at a Russian Security Council meeting chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the opening days of Russia’s February 2022 invasion, Russian troops in Crimea pushed north and quickly captured Kherson province’s capital, the city of Kherson, and surrounding areas. Ukraine took the territory back in November after forcing the Russians to retreat across the Dnieper River, which bisects the province.
Russian still occupies the east side, and Ukraine the west. The destruction of an upriver dam this month caused deaths and extensive flooding on both sides. Ukrainian commanders say it also got in the way of some of their plans for taking Russian positions in the counteroffensive’s initial stages.
Addressing the counteroffensive’s overall progress and not just in the south, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Thursday that Ukraine’s army had advanced 7 kilometers and retaken territory that included eight villages during the last two weeks.
“As the president of Ukraine said yesterday, the counteroffensive is not a Hollywood movie. It’s not easy walk,” Shmyhal told reporters at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London. “The counteroffensive is a number of military operations. Sometimes it’s offensive, sometimes it’s defensive. Sometimes it could be tactical pauses. Unfortunately, during our preparation for this counteroffensive, Russians were preparing too. So there is so much minefields, which really make it slower.”
While calling for realistic expectations, Shmyhal said Ukraine’s supporters should expect to see headway in the carefully planned, high-stakes campaign.
“We not bring our people into the fire of this war as Russians (are) doing. … We will do very smart offensive operations and because of this it will take time,” the prime minister said. “We all should have patience and we will see results.”
The Crimean Peninsula is connected to mainland Ukraine by an isthmus about 9 kilometers (6 miles) wide and several bridges.
An October explosion on a bridge linking Crimea to Russia caused the span’s partial collapse and killed three people, according to Russian authorities.
The 19-kilometer (12-mile) Kerch Bridge, which stands over a strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, is the longest bridge in Europe and a symbol of Moscow’s claims on Crimea.
Putin presided over the bridge’s opening in 2018 and drove across it in a Mercedes in December when repairs were completed.
He also visited Crimea the day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader accusing him of war crimes. He made the trip to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation, a move that Ukraine and most of the world considered illegal.
In other developments Thursday, an explosion and fire at a 16-story residential building in Kyiv killed three people and injured five others. Serhii Popko, head of Ukrainian capital’s military administration, said in a Telegram post that a gas leak was the suspected cause of the blast. Firefighters worked overnight to bring the blaze under control.