Moscow -- Russian President Vladimir Putin today inaugurated a nearly 12-mile-long bridge connecting Russia to Crimea, marking the occasion by driving a bright-orange truck across to the disputed peninsula that Russian troops seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The bridge that spans the Kerch Strait establishes Russia’s first land connection with Crimea and, as such, is freighted with symbolism, with the Kremlin portraying it as a physical affirmation of the region’s incorporation into Russia.
Speaking at a celebratory concert on the other side of the bridge, where some of Russia’s music stars performed, Putin hailed engineers, telling them the project’s completion was “a miracle.”
State television showed Putin first meeting with a group of workers before climbing into the Russian-made Kamaz truck and leading a column of other trucks across the bridge. A camera in the truck’s cabin showed a pleased-looking Putin bouncing in his seat as he drove and making small talk with two workers.
About 11.8 miles long, the bridge is the longest in Europe, linking Russia’s southern Krasnodar region to the port of Kerch in Crimea. Crimea's only other land crossing leads into Ukraine and, until now, vehicles traveling from Russia have had to rely on ferries across the strait that are frequently interrupted by bad weather.
Costing $3.6 billion, the bridge is a colossal project, both in terms of engineering and price. Previous efforts to bridge the straits in the Soviet period had faltered because of the difficult conditions in the strait, where powerful winds frequently whip up rough seas.
Putin opened the bridge's road section today after two years' construction. When a rail section is completed in 2019, according to state media, the bridge will be able to carry 40,000 cars and 47 trains a day. The amount of steel used to build the bridge is enough to construct 32 Eiffel Towers, state-funded broadcaster RT reported.
“I sincerely congratulate you on this remarkable, celebratory and historic in the full sense of the word, day,” Putin told workers at the concert, according to state news agency TASS.
“Historic because in different historical epochs, ever under the tsar-batushka, people dreamt about building this bridge,” Putin added, using an affectionate folk name for the tsars who ruled the Russian empire until the Soviet period.
“And now, thanks to your labor, to your talent, this miracle has been achieved," he said.
The bridge's construction and Putin's drive into Crimea defied criticism from Ukraine and the United States and Europe. Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 was condemned internationally and prompted the United States and the European Union to impose sanctions on Moscow.
Few countries have recognized Russia’s annexation and the peninsula remains effectively isolated, with Western companies barred from doing business there.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin wrote on Twitter: “It’s a bridge between occupied Crimea, where people are intimidated and disappear, and Russia, where they arrest 1,600 peaceful protestors in a day. Both ends of the bridge lead to nowhere.”
About 1,600 people were arrested during anti-Kremlin demonstrations before Putin's inauguration as president again last week; in Crimea, rights groups have tracked cases where critics of the annexation have been arrested, harassed and sometimes kidnapped.
The United States has said lifting sanctions requires Russia to give back Crimea, which the Kremlin has flatly rejected. And Putin's flamboyant ride into the peninsula underscored Russia's unwillingness to negotiate on the issue.
In Russia, Crimea's taking made Putin wildly popular and it has become a crucial pillar of his rule, to which the Kremlin frequently turns to rally support. As such, the bridge has been treated by Russian state media as a national feat and been promoted for months in shiny presentations on the main state television channels.
But the bridge has also come to be seen by critics as an illustration of the perceived cronyism in Putin's system of rule. To build it, the Kremlin turned to a company belonging to Arkady Rotenburg, Putin's childhood friend and judo sparring partner, who today showed Putin around as he inspected the bridge.
Rotenburg has become one of Russia’s richest men since Putin came to power, making his fortune largely through state contracts. He has said he will make little money from the bridge project, saying he views the bridge’s construction instead as a patriotic duty.