Friday, May 25, 2018

Putin opens bridge connecting Russia to Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimea

May 25, 2018 (KyivPost) Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 15 opened a 19-kilometer bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea with Russia, an ambitious project completed some 75 years after the Nazis first tried to do the same. Putin, whose popularity rose drastically after Russia invaded and occupied Crimea in the spring of 2014, personally oversaw the project, which started in 2015. Speaking to the builders of the bridge, Putin said there had been plans to construct such a bridge since the times of the Russian tsars, without mentioning that a previous bridge had actually existed in 1943-1944 thanks to two dictators – Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. In March 1943, Hitler ordered the construction of a road and railway bridge over the Kerch Strait within six months, but Nazi forces had to retreat in September the same year, leaving the bridge unfinished.

The Soviets managed to finish the bridge in the summer of 1944 using the materials left by the German army, but the bridge was destroyed six months later by ice flows. Modern critics have questioned the reliability and durability of the Russian bridge, as the bottom of the Kerch strait is covered with up to 80 meters of mud, requiring the construction of deep piles to support the bridge. A blogger in April claimed to have photographed large cracks in one of the bridge supports, and hasty repairs being made. There are also several faults in the crust under the Kerch Strait, making the area prone to earthquakes and eruptions of mud volcanoes, which adds to the risk that the new bridge will be unstable.

A vehicle runs down the 19 km road-and-rail Crimean Bridge passing over the Kerch Strait and linking southern Russia to the Crimean peninsula on May 15, 2018, in Kerch, prior to the opening ceremony. Putin, who personally drove a Russian Kamaz truck across the bridge from Russia’s Taman peninsula to Ukraine’s Crimea at the head of a column of 35 cars, announced that cargo transport would start moving across the bridge from autumn and that the parallel railway bridge would open in a year. Putin also briefly thanked all who participated in the construction, which was conducted predominantly by a company belonging to Arkady Rotenberg, an old friend of Putin who has benefited from lucrative contracts handed out by the Kremlin, and who is now on the EU sanctions list. In celebration, Russian authorities organized pop concerts at both ends of the bridge, events that recalled the massive pro-Kremlin celebrations held in Simferopol and Moscow in 2014 after the invasion and start of the Russian occupation of Crimea. Meanwhile, Ukraine and the West slammed the new bridge as illegal and damaging to the environment. Sarcastically, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the new bridge “will definitely be handy for the occupants when they have to urgently leave our Crimea.” The European Commission said in a statement that the building of the bridge was an “another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia,” adding that the new bridge will also hinder the access of Ukrainian shipping to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. Ukraine’s Prosecutors Office of Crimea in exile estimated that the new bridge will cause damage of environment of the Black and Azov Seas worth at least $380 million.