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Returned Ukrainian POW says he tried to blow up bridge to Crimea in first hours of 2022 invasion

Crimea demining chonhar
Collage: Ukrainska Pravda
Returned Ukrainian POW says he tried to blow up bridge to Crimea in first hours of 2022 invasion
Sergeant Major Sestryvatovskyi lays an end to rumors that traitors had ordered the bridges to occupied Crimea to be demined, enabling Russia’s swift occupation of south Ukraine.

Russia’s speedy occupation of southern Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has been a cause for speculation ever since. Rumors swirled that Ukrainian officials had given treasonous orders to demine the connections between the Crimean peninsula, which Russia occupied in 2014, and mainland Ukraine.

Because the bridges stood intact in Chonhar, one of the two road and rail connections of the occupied peninsula with southern Ukraine, Russia’s invasion was swift and it promptly occupied vast swaths of land that Ukraine is currently struggling to regain.

“The enemy covered a fairly large distance without resistance. It marched from Crimea almost without fighting and ended up on the western outskirts of Mariupol,” Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko said in the spring of 2022 while holding the defense of Mariupol.

Why they stood intact is a question that has bewildered Ukrainians ever since, since they were allegedly mined, just in case Russia would attempt to invade from that direction. Did a traitor give orders for them to be demined? If not, why did the explosives not go off? Who is responsible for the speedy occupation and thousands of lives lost?

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov dismissed reports of the bridges at Chonhar allegedly being demined as rumors; Ukraine’s General Staff said that the bridge was mined but Ukraine faced prevailing Russian forces that were 15 times as strong.

Yet, the events on Chonhar are being investigated in criminal proceedings.

The first reliable answer to those questions has arrived in an interview of the Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda with Ivan Sestryvatovskyi, a 48-year-old marine of the 137th separate battalion, who served on the border with Crimea, was released from Russian captivity, and was the one who was supposed to blow up the bridges on the fateful night of 24 February 2022.

In the fall of 2021, he began serving at the positions across from Chonhar and held the position of platoon sergeant major and deputy platoon commander. Before the full-scale invasion began, regular military exercises took place, Sgt. Maj. Sestryvatovskyi told the media outlet. But at the start of 2022, they were ordered to step up their surveillance of possible Russian provocations, “to avoid intimidating anyone and to keep a better watch.”

The marine, who hoped that Russia would not risk an invasion, told that Ukraine didn’t prepare any special fortifications at Chonhar. Yet, all the bridges — one rail bridge and two road bridges — from the occupied peninsula were mined back in 2014. According to Sestryvatovskyi, the mines were checked 1.5-2 weeks before Russia’s invasion on 24 February 2022.

“There was a logbook where every time they came to check, they put marks on what was good, what was not good, what they did, whether everything was okay. There was no demining. Only the sappers, the people who mined and maintained these bridges, knew how it was mined. I personally knew where it was mined; I was instructed on how to connect it all. And I had to stay to blow it up,” Sestryvatovskyi recalled.

On the night of 23-24 February 2022, the Russians started moving inside Crimea.

“Everyone was waiting, nervous. No one slept, merely laid down. We got up around 3 AM. Everyone was assigned to their positions. I went with the commander, the senior of the position, to connect the devices to blow up bridges. I stayed there, and he went to take care of the personnel.

 

It all started with a mortar attack from Crimea. They were shelling our positions, the positions of the border guards. It was around 4:30 AM.

 

The order to blow up the bridges was to be given to me by the immediate commander of the position, and he had to receive an order from the higher command.

 

The sappers had developed a special plan: there were envelopes that could be opened if necessary, and those envelopes contained instructions on how to connect the explosive devices. We connected them, and I stayed to press the button.

 

Communication was down, the radio stations were not working. The commander was dealing with the personnel, running to the positions to arrange everyone. Mines were already exploding, it was very loud – you could not shout at anyone. So I was actually acting on my own and made the decision to blow up personally,” the sergeant recalls the day of the invasion.

1o minutes after the shelling started, the sergeant, who was standing right next to the bridges, decided to blow up them up, but there was no explosion.

“I tried to reconnect, to double-check the wires: maybe there was some mistake, something was connected incorrectly. I reconnected, tried again. I did this three times, but there was no explosion,” Sestryvatovskyi recalls.

He believes that either a sabotage group had damaged the connections or the detonation wires were damaged by mortar fire. However, even if the bridges were blown up, it would have merely delayed the Russian invasion for an hour and a half, not stopped it, the St. Maj. says: “They would have just put up pontoons. They were preparing for this war.”

Their evacuation car was damaged, which is why Sgt. Maj. Sestryvatovskyi stayed in his position, reporting on the entrance of Russian tanks and air defense by mobile phone. At 16:00 on 24 February 2022, he was taken captive and released in a prisoner exchange on 26 April 2023.

Could Ukraine have fought off Crimean occupation? A crucial document you should know

 

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