Case study: Putin’s Crimean ambitions

President Vladimir Putin is championing a bridge connecting Russia’s mainland to the Crimean Peninsula, de jure a part of Ukraine but de facto a separatist territory now controlled by Moscow. The bridge is not only a highly ambitious feat of engineering that could disrupt shipping, but also demonstrates that Russia will not relinquish its claim to the peninsula in the foreseeable future. 

On 29 August, Russia came a step closer to the completion of the 19km-long road-and-rail Crimean Bridge by installing a 200m-long, 6,000 tonne railway arch. The arch forms part of a project to connect the Crimean Peninsula to Russia over the Kerch Strait to the Krasnodar Krai.

Construction on the Crimean Bridge began in April 2015, shortly after Russia annexed the peninsula that de jure remains part of Ukraine. Even before the Russian intervention, in friendlier times, Ukraine and Russia had toyed with the idea of creating a transport link between the two countries, agreeing to build a bridge in 2008. However, the project never materialised, and relations between the two countries soured rapidly in late 2013, leading to a still-unresolved conflict. In March 2014, Russian troops entered Crimea and never left.

Infrastructure gap

Russia’s annexation of Crimea not only drew international condemnation, but also cut the peninsula off economically from the rest of Ukraine. In January 2016, a Ukrainian government order to cease trade with Crimea came into effect. That came two months after Ukrainian nationalist vigilantes sabotaged electricity pylons supplying the peninsula, leaving Crimea with frequent power failures. Large multinational firms have stopped doing business in Crimea. Formerly a major tourism destination, the stream of Ukrainian visitors has dried up. Fisheries have lost their Ukrainian market.

The costs of transporting goods and people to and from Crimea are proving prohibitive

Physically, too, Crimea is now isolated. From Russia, the peninsula can only be reached by air or by ferry. Though the latter option is more popular, vessels plying the strait are vulnerable to the highly changeable climate, and journeys are often cancelled.

The costs of transporting goods and people to and from Crimea are also proving prohibitive for the struggling Russian economy. In 2014, ferries charged around USD1,000 to transport goods vehicles between Russia and Crimea. The Russian government has now heavily subsidised the charges, bringing them down to USD200.

Russia hopes that the bridge will massively increase movement of goods and people from Russia to the embattled Crimea. Up to 40,000 cars will make the ten-minute journey across the bridge every day, and Russia has set the ambitious goal of completing the four highway lanes of the bridge by December 2018. Nearly 50 trains will travel across the bridge daily from 2019, carrying passengers and cargo.

Importance for Russia

The bridge will be the longest such construction in Europe. It will cost up to USD4.5 billion, and is one of the most ambitious engineering projects Russia has ever undertaken.

Construction of the bridge has been difficult due to hostile weather conditions across the Kerch Strait. Between November and March, storm winds hit the region, making deliveries to the building sites impossible on some days. A bridge across the strait was built in 1944 but was destroyed by ice floes in February 1945. The strait is also located in a seismically active area, and there are mud volcanoes on the sea floor that could erupt. Engineers have struggled to reach the sea floor in some areas due to a deep channel running along the planned route of the bridge. This is particularly problematic as the muddy, infirm bottom of the strait and the geological conditions already require extremely long piles.

Crimea holds huge strategic significance for Russia

A cheaper and faster solution would have been to improve maritime infrastructure and increase the ferry traffic to and from Crimea. However, the bridge is a much-more-physical display of Russia’s might and control of the peninsula. A new airport terminal is being built in Simferopol, privately financed by Russian investors. Since international aviation organisations including the ICAO and Eurocontrol do not recognise Russia’s takeover of Crimean airspace, only flights to and from Russia are operational. Still, the construction of the terminal sends a strong signal that Russian investors see Crimea as a long-term investment.

Crucially, Crimea holds huge strategic significance for Russia. One of the probable reasons for Russia’s original intervention in Ukraine was to secure its naval base at Sevastopol. The lease of facilities on Ukrainian territory to Russia was highly unpopular with western-leaning Ukrainian nationalists, who revolted against the government in 2013. Securing Russia’s connection to Crimea will allow Russia to solidify its presence in the Black Sea just as it perceives a loss of influence over littoral countries such as Georgia. It also means that Russia is able to protect the Blue Stream, a major gas pipeline traversing the Black Sea to Turkey, which was built to remove Russia’s dependence on third countries.

View from Ukraine

The government in Kiev argues that the project violates Ukraine’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over its waters and exclusive economic zone.

Russia has closed the Kerch Strait twice for the construction of the bridge, and plans to do so again in September and October for a total of 23 days. The strait was closed on 9 August, and then again from 28 to 30 August in order for the engineers to settle the first railway arch.

The bridge will pose a serious challenge to maritime logistics

As a result, dozens of cargo vessels were left stranded on both sides of the strait, a crucial waterway that links the Azov Sea to the Black Sea. Ukrainian exporters were left with no choice but to re-route their cargo through ports in Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa oblasts. The Ukrainian government estimates the losses caused by these closures amount to around EUR17 million, and is demanding compensation. Russia is highly unlikely ever to pay out.

Once completed, the bridge will pose a serious challenge to maritime logistics. Though Russia argues that its two 35m-high archways will allow ships to pass underneath, Ukraine strongly disputes this. When Russia and Ukraine previously considered building a bridge across the Kerch Strait, Ukraine recommended that the corridor be at least 50m high.

The Ukrainian government argues that the current arches will only allow for vessels up to 33m high, preventing around 30 per cent of current traffic from navigating the strait. Ukrainian engineers say that the frequently stormy weather will further restrict tall vessels. Naturally, Russian Black Sea fleet warships will be able to pass underneath the arches.

The height restriction could cut off Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, but is unlikely to affect Russian ports in the same region, since the cargo ships that dock at Russia’s Azov Sea ports are smaller. The concern for Ukraine is the possible isolation of its south-eastern port of Mariupol, used for metallurgical imports and exports as well as for all shipments that should have gone through Crimea. This would permanently damage the country’s economy, already in a state of crisis due to Russia’s military intervention.

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