Spanning the Tuzla Spit, a new bridge will link Russia and Crimea. At 12 miles and $3 billion, it will be the longest and most expensive in Russian history.
Set to open at the beginning of 2019, the bridge will connect by road and rail the Crimean peninsula at Kercz with the Russian region of Krasnodor at Taman. Others have attempted this before. In 1870, the British Empire built a telegraph wire across the Kercz Strait, linking London with the British Raj. War and icebergs destroyed Hitler and Stalins’ attempts to bridge the gap.
Putin’s primary aim is to create a land link to the Crimean capital Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. Founded in 1783, the port city is a lynchpin of Russian naval and amphibious warfare in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. A reliable land connection is paramount for Russian warfare in these theatres: an ever-intensifying need, given the expanding Russian campaign in Syria.
Overthrowing a corrupt regime in 2014, the Ukrainian people demanded their right to free-market, rule-of-law reforms. The ousted Kremlin-backed President fled to Moscow, and was soon replaced by a liberal, pro-Western reformer. Terrified of losing Sevastopol port under a fiercely anti-Kremlin government in Kiev, Putin used the revolutionary chaos as a cover to invade the Crimean peninsula: an illegal occupation which remains to this day.
Although an independence referendum was held, which recorded 95.5% support for secession, in reality the vote is not a particularly reliable indicator of Crimean people’s feelings towards remaining as part of Ukraine or seceding. This is due to the heavy military presence in the region at the time and the lack of any international observers able to verify the vote firsthand.
Pro-EU, democratic, anti-corruption, pro-rule of law, unforeseen and spontaneous: the Ukrainian revolution seemed all too similar to an uprising which might yet wrench Putin from power. To wreck the Ukrainian people’s attempt at reform and liberation, Putin is fighting an undeclared war in Eastern Ukraine, muddying the waters with ‘separatists’ to conceal the real Russian invading force. Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine have been buried in secret.
From Estonia to Japan, Russia’s neighbours are alive to the threat posed by this aggressive, gambling ex-KGB man. NATO is stepping up its defences in the Baltic states, deploying thousands of troops in multinational battalions. 800 British troops have been sent to Estonia, another 150 to Poland. RAF Typhoon fighter jets flew Air Policing missions this summer, over the Western Black Sea. After Russian military exercises over the summer (the largest since the Cold War) NATO has also established a 4,000-strong multi-national battalion in the Western Black Sea, prioritising air and sea assets.
Plans for the bridge began shortly after the annexation, and the project has been beset with problems. The meteorology and geology of the area poses massive challenges: deep-lying mud volcanoes and a sludgy bottom can’t support the substantial foundations needed for such a big bridge. Russia’s parliament, the Duma, had to pass a special law to allow for unrestricted construction ignoring ecological dangers, and omitting any kind of public hearing.
Awarded in June 2015, the contract for the project went to Стройгазмонтаж (Stroygazmontazh), the same company charged with overseeing the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Owned by Arkady Rotenberg, a personal friend of President Putin, this company was sanctioned by the EU last November for its involvement in the project. As the annexation is illegal, all construction work is illegal too. The second state tender failed due to lack of bidders – foreign investors avoid complicity in Crimea’s annexation, as they are terrified of falling victim to Western sanctions on Putin’s collaborators. Russia’s economy has been battered by American and European sanctions, on top of the cost of an undeclared war in Eastern Ukraine. Rotenberg was already sanctioned as a senior Russian businessman, so risks to him from involvement in this illegal project were lessened. Originally, the total cost of the project was estimated at $5 billion, but has since dropped to $3.4 billion.
Expanding the ferry service across would have been much cheaper than the $3 billion already ploughed into the project, and would have lasted far longer than the bridge. So why is Putin pushing this project? Pushback from the Ukrainian people and the West has given him a bloody nose, and he needs a showy victory. This is not a new trick: the Soviets spent more than a decade and $14 billion building the Baikur-Amar train-line to the Pacific.
Their brothers and friends killed on the Eastern Front, the Ukrainian people are now radicalised against Kremlin rule. Ukraine has suffered at Russian hands before, and the Ukrainian Volunteer Brigades won’t permit it again. Ukraine’s volunteer army has for the last three and a half years defended valiantly their homeland from occupation. Thanks to these men, Putin’s war is a disaster. Unable to declare a real victory in Ukraine or Crimea, Putin needs a tangible win to save face. A record-breaking historic bridge will do nicely.