By Shaun Walker
Russian engineers have completed a key phase of a bridge that will link the annexed Crimea peninsula to mainland Russia.
A huge 6,000-tonne railway arch was hauled into place 35 metres (115ft) above the sea, in an operation involving hundreds of workers.
The bridge, which will be 12 miles long when complete, is due to open to road traffic next year and rail traffic in 2019. It is a major part of the Kremlin’s plan to integrate Crimea, seized from Ukraine in March 2014 in a rapid military operation. The international community still regards the territory as part of Ukraine, and Crimean officials and companies have been under western sanctions since the annexation.
Crimea is linked to Ukraine by a narrow isthmus, but is separated from Russia by the Kerch Strait. Currently the only routes to Crimea from mainland Russia are by plane or a ferry across the strait, which is often cancelled due to bad weather.
For Russia, the bridge is both a practical necessity to provide infrastructure links to the annexed peninsula, and a symbolic move meant to show that Moscow has no intention of giving up control over Crimea any time soon. Russian officials hope the bridge will make it easier for Russian tourists to holiday in Crimea, and for Crimean wines and produce to be transported to mainland Russia for sale.
The railway arch forms a section more than 200 metres in length, and is high enough to allow ships to pass beneath. A similar arch for the road traffic section will be lifted into place next month. The bridge has been described as the most complex construction operation in Russian history. It will be the longest bridge in the country, and is projected to cost nearly £3bn.
Plans for its construction began to take shape shortly after the annexation, and were made all the more important by a series of blockades from the Ukrainian side. The border between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine is highly militarised and subject to long delays. The peninsula was left without electricityfor weeks on end in late 2015 after Ukrainian vigilantes blew up electricity lines.
The construction marks the realisation of plans that have been floated for more than a century, beginning with a vague suggestion by a British consortium in the 19th century to build a rail link between London and India via Crimea.
Plans were made for a bridge during the 1930s industrialisation drive under Joseph Stalin, and in 1942 when Crimea was under German control the Nazis got as far as beginning construction on a bridge, but were repulsed by the advancing Red Army before they could complete it. A one-track rail bridge was built by the Soviets towards the end of the second world war, but collapsed just a few months later.
Later Soviet plans were abandoned due to the huge cost involved, given the complicated geological concerns in the area and difficult weather conditions.
After the annexation, Russian officials looked at various options for connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland, including a tunnel, but eventually settled on a bridge.
Construction is being overseen by Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire who was Vladimir Putin’s childhood judo partner and has a long history of winning state construction contracts during the presidency of his old friend.
Rotenberg has claimed the project is not just about money: “Besides financial profit … I also want the project to mean something for future generations,” he told Russian state television last year.
Russia says its seizure of the territory was in response to the will of locals, who voted overwhelmingly to join Russia in a hastily organised referendum in 2014that was dismissed as illegitimate by the international community. Since then, human rights groups have criticised a crackdown on freedom of speech in the region, and the indigenous Crimean Tatar population has reported harassment and arrests.