The newly-opened bridge linking Crimea and Russia carries traffic both ways, but the political divide its construction has come to symbolize is most apparent to those who call the territorially contested peninsula home.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin led the televised, inaugural crossing of the controversial span on Tuesday—ensconced in the cab of a bright-orange, (partly) Russian-made Kamaz dump truck to emphasize the new route’s commercial promise—senior members of the Mejlis, the self-governing body of Crimean Tatars that Russia outlawed upon its annexation, saw a very different image.
“The bridge is Putin’s image-boosting project for the sake of his electorate in Russia,” Ulmi Umerov, deputy director of the Mejlis, told VOA’s Russian Service. “Whatever is being said about the bridge being a gateway somewhere, it’s only a gateway to a dead end. Economically, it won’t be justified.”
For Umerov’s fellow deputy, Ahtem Chiygoz, financial prospects are beside the point. No amount of economic benefits could adequately compensate for what has been lost, he told VOA.
“Close brotherly ties with Ukraine ended when Russia started to kill Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, in Eastern Ukraine, including women and children,” he said. “It severed all ties.”
While even some Russians have dubbed the road-and-rail bridge, purposely designed to hardwire Crimea into Russia’s transport network, “Putin’s bridge,” many in Russia see the move as restoring Moscow’s rule over a historically Russian region.
As a pack of leather-clad bikers roared toward the Black Sea Peninsula on Wednesday—their tri-color Russian flags snapping in wind, the leader of a widely known pro-Kremlin motorcycle club in their midst—even some native Crimeans were there to greet them.
“The Crimea bridge is a link,” said Andrey Merkulov, a resident from Sevastopol, the peninsula’s biggest city. “It is the greatness and might of my country. It’s yet more proof of this might and greatness.”
“We came to participate in the opening [of the bridge], to drive on it for the first time,” said Aleksandr Karavayev, also from Sevastopol.
His family, like other Crimean locals, said they had driven through the night to attend what they called a historic moment.
Project finances questioned
Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine drew sanctions and prompted a deterioration in ties with the West.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko joined top EU officials in condemning the project as a violation of international law, saying it has damaged the environment and that larger ships won’t be able to navigate to ports on the Azov Sea.
Although the United States has sanctioned numerous individuals and entities involved in the project, and U.S. officials on Tuesday vowed anew that Crimea-related sanctions would remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine, Russian attorney Nikolay Polozov, who provides legal counsel for some Mejli deputies, said completion of the bridge only proves the sanctions are largely obsolete.
“It turned out a number of European companies took part in the bridge construction despite the existing sanctions,” he told VOA. “Since Russia did not have the technology that made constructing the bridge by themselves possible, they were working with Dutch companies. This is going to lead to a very serious political conversation between the U.S. and Europe.
“And it wasn’t by chance that Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s friend, was present at the grand opening,” he added, referring to the construction magnate who is one of Russia’s wealthiest men and Putin’s one-time Judo coach.
“His company was responsible for the bridge construction, as well as for Sochi Olympics and other construction projects organized with double and triple profit in mind,” he said. “The task is to extract as many funds from the budget as possible and then split it between themselves.”
The bridge, Polozov argued, has no practical meaning.
The main highway that the bridge feeds into, he said, “leads directly to the Simferopol city bus terminal,” which is roughly a 130 mile drive from Kerch, portions of which are on slower secondary roads.
“You can’t go anywhere else from it.”
Many Russians, however, know that’s technically not true. And with beachfront destinations such as Feodosia and Koktebel marking the way, that may not matter.
Crimea is a popular destination for Russians during the summer, and Putin said in March he would like to see the bridge open by the time the season arrives.
The bridge will also make the peninsula easier to reach from southern Russia, where long lines of vehicles frequently form as they wait to board ferries, which can’t always run during winter storms.
“In the past three years, nothing stopped Russians from coming to the Crimea,” said Chiygoz, the deputy Mejli who, like his fellow deputy, Umerov, has ostensibly been excommunicated to Kyiv.
Upon Russia’s 2014 annexation, both Chiygoz and Umerov were quickly jailed, only to be whisked to Istanbul where they received pardons. Because they were denied access to the terms of the pardon, however, they now reside indefinitely in Kyiv, uncertain if they will ever be allowed to return home to Crimean soil.
But Russians, Chiygoz says, are “being actively encouraged to visit [Crimea].”
“You can’t steal territory from another state in the 21st century, you can’t kill women and children and then make it seem like nothing happened,” Chiygoz said.
“Russia’s image-making projects are destined to fail,” added Umerov, referring to the bridge.
“Because today this state transmits terror,” he said, claiming that’s that what the bridge, in his mind, represents. “It brings death.”
The 19-km (12 miles) long Kerch Strait Bridge opened to public traffic Wednesday.
This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service. Some information is from Reuters.