By Jack Laurenson
KYIV – For a great deal of Crimeans living and working here in Ukraine's capital, the completion of Russia's Kerch Strait Bridge is both an injury and an insult.
The 19km flyover, connecting the Krasnodar region of mainland Russia with the illegally-occupied Crimean peninsular, was opened this week as Vladimir Putin symbolically drove the first truck into annexed Ukrainian territory.
Kremlin Closer to Crimea
"At last, thanks to your talent, this project, this miracle, has happened," the recently re-elected Putin told assembled workers and reporters, as he stepped out of the truck's cabin onto the Crimean side of the bridge.
Here in Kyiv, officials blasted the media stunt and the bridge's opening.
"The illegal construction of [this] bridge is the latest evidence of the Kremlin's disregard for international law," President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement.
"It is particularly cynical that its opening is happening on the eve of the latest anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean-Tatar people by the Stalin regime," he added.
Derided and criticized here in Ukraine, the opening has been largely welcomed and celebrated in Russia. The bridge will make crossings from the Federation into Crimea – a long-time summer playground for Soviet and Russian tourists – a lot easier.
Loss for Ukraine, Russia's Gain?
Russian businesses in particular have welcomed its opening: access to ports, energy reserves and a boost to the steady flow of Russian goods and people crossing into Crimea is coming.
Ukrainian companies are less happy. The Hague court just ordered Russia to pay Ukrainian businesses $159 million in compensation for losses since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
One large car company here recently told the UBJ that the loss of the peninsular, and the large market for them there, had almost halved their profits in recent years.
While 18 plaintiffs succeeded in securing a ruling from the Netherlands-based court, the broader economic ramifications and losses to the Ukrainian state are much more significant and long-lasting.
All in, when lost energy reserves are taken into account, accrued losses are estimated to be well over $100 billion for Ukraine at this point, a sum that the country is not likely to see compensated.
New revelations that indicate Russia could start using the new bridge to blockade Ukrainian cargo ships en-route to Ukraine’s two main ports on the Sea of Azov (at Berdyansk and Mariupol) are also causing concern in Kyiv's corridors of power.
This month, Russian border forces have started stopping and inspecting such ships, as EU officials warn that the completed bridge is already limiting the passage of vital shipping through the Kerch Strait. If such interference by Russian border forces continue, Ukraine can be expected to respond by blocking Russian shipping access to the Danube.
But as Ukrainian businesses tangle with Russia in the courts, the human cost for ordinary citizens is also significant.
Further From Home
Completion of the $3.7 billion bridge project has brought Crimea closer to Russia; a strong step towards complete integration of the illegally-occupied territory and a powerful metaphor for Putin's ideological legacy.
While Russians have never before been able to so easily travel back and forth to Crimea, many Ukrainian Crimeans living in mainland Ukraine have never felt further from home.
Anastasia, a 27-year-old IT developer working for a software company in Kyiv doesn't know when she will next see her family in Sevastopol.
“I guess the new bridge is great for Russian tourists,” she says. “For me, travelling home to Crimea is a nightmare and I don't know when I will next do it.”
From Kyiv, a journey to Sevastopol can take over 20-hours, with Russian military checkpoints, border controls and inspections making the only bus route stressful and humiliating for Crimeans wanting to go home.
Her software company relocated to Kyiv, with most of their staff, shortly after annexation.
While Anastasia sends money home when she can, her family didn't have the luxury of relocating to Ukraine's capital when Russian troops moved in.
“When I have gone home, I don't even recognize this place any more,” she says.
The Cost of Europe's Biggest Bridge
Russian state media has gone into overdrive to celebrate their country's accomplishment, calling it the “construction of the century”. But while bridges are meant to connect, this one could well become a costly symbol of Russia's growing isolation.
The British wanted to bridge the Kerch Strait in the late nineteenth century, as part of an ambitious railroad route to India through Crimea. Planners deemed it to to be too expensive and plans were scrapped. Nearly a hundred years later, the Nazis would start construction, seeing the bridge as vital to spearheading their invasion into the Northern Caucasuses. The Red Army, as they pushed the Germans out of Central and Eastern Europe, put an end to that plan.
Today, as the long-contemplated, Russian-built bridge finally opens to millions of cars, rail carriages and millions of tons of cargo each year, the full cost of Europe's longest bridge is yet to be seen.
The Stroygazmontazh construction company – owned by Putin's close personal friend and judo sparring partner, Arkady Rotenberg – has already been hit by EU and US sanctions for its close ties to the Kremlin and its business activities in occupied Crimea.
And the impressive bridge, seen by most observers as the latest Russian action that undermines the territorial integrity of Ukraine, might well connect the Russian mainland with annexed Crimea, but it's the latest dividing wedge between Putin and the international community.
For comments or story ideas please contact the author of this report, UBJ Managing Editor Jack Laurenson, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted May 17, 2018.