Vladimir Putin has opened a bridge that will serve as Russia’s first road link to Crimea, a symbolic victory for him that will also reduce the annexed peninsula’s isolation.
This “project of the century” completes what Mr Putin has framed as Russia’s historic reunification with Crimea four years after it was seized from Ukraine in the wake of a pro-Western revolution there.
To christen the bridge, which at almost 12 miles is the longest in Europe, Mr Putin got behind the wheel of an orange Kamaz lorry on live television and cruised across to Crimea.
“I congratulate you on this historic holiday,” the president told labourers at the other end. “It’s historic because in different epochs, back in the times of our father the tsar, people dreamed about building this bridge. Finally thanks to your talent and work, this project, this wonder, has been completed.”
Mr Putin added that the four lanes of automobile traffic would accommodate 14 million people a year, bringing Crimea and Russia “closer to each other” and allowing the peninsula to grow at a “new economic tempo”.
A twin railway bridge has been postponed until December 2019.
At a total cost of £2.7 billion, the bridge is the kind of no-expense-spared patriotic megaproject that has marked Mr Putin’s rule, along with the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. The president, whose approval ratings shot above 80 per cent with Crimea’s annexation, personally oversaw it.
The bridge may offer some relief for residents of the peninsula, who largely supported annexation but have suffered high prices for food and goods after deliveries from Ukraine were stopped. Sanctions have cut off trade with the rest of the world.
Transport expert Mikhail Blinkin and others have argued that expanding the existing ferry service could have solved the transport problem for a fraction of the cost, but, as he told news site Krym Realii, that would “not say anything about Russia as a world power”.
A company belonging to Arkady Rotenberg, Mr Putin’s childhood judo sparring partner, took on the high-pressure, technically challenging task of building the bridge.
The United States sanctioned Mr Rotenberg and his brother Boris in 2014 for fulfilling state contracts for presidential “pet projects” like the Sochi Games, as did the European Union. It later sanctioned companies involved in the bridge’s construction.
Crimean bridge map
The state department condemned the opening of the bridge on Tuesday, calling it an “attempt by Russia to solidify its unlawful seizure and its occupation of Crimea” and complaining that it blocked large ships from reaching Ukrainian waters in the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said “both ends of the bridge lead nowhere,” accusing Moscow of arresting and disappearing critics in “occupied Crimea”.
Spanning the notoriously windy Kerch strait was not only a geopolitical victory, but also a feat of engineering. The Soviet bridge over the strait, whose construction was begun by Nazi forces, had to be dismantled after it was damaged by ice in 1945.
The new bridge relies on piles running up to 350 feet deep to cross four miles of open water. As many as 15,000 workers at a time toiled on the 27-month project.
The 6,000-tonne twin central arches had to be built on shore and then moved into place by boats.
Trucks will now be able to travel from the mainland to Crimea in 20 minutes, rather than waiting hours or even days for a spot on the ferry.
State television claimed that the bridge would increase Crimea’s GDP growth by two to three per cent and cut the price of goods there by up to 15 per cent.
Local authorities also hope an anticipated influx of 6.4 million visitors in 2018 will help revitalise Crimea’s ailing tourist industry.
In a broadcast reminiscent of the propaganda around Soviet building endeavours, state television trumpeted that the bridge had been opened half a year ahead of schedule, although freight vehicles reportedly won’t be able to cross until autumn.
Crimean bridge infographic
Host Andrei Kondrashov, who interviewed Mr Putin in a fawning documentary before he was re-elected in March, called the bridge “simply beautiful” and said the workers “would have been awarded hero of labour orders in Soviet times”.
“The logistical problems will be solved in a moment,” he gushed. “Crimeans will immediately feel the effect of the bridge on their wallets.”