Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the auto section of a $3.6 billion (223 billion rouble) road-and-rail bridge over the Kersch Strait on Tuesday linking Russia to the Crimean peninsula - much to the consternation of Ukrainian officials who said the bridge showed "disregard for international law."
The bridge will be the longest dual-purpose span bridge in Europe, with the rail section expected to be completed at the end of 2019.
The road stretch of the bridge was due to be completed by the end of 2018, but the opening was moved up at Putin's request. He inspected the bridge in March ahead of the presidential election he won, saying it was important to have the link to the Black Sea peninsula open for the summer tourist season. -CBC
"Putin initiated this project himself. Many didn't believe these plans were possible," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday before the ceremony, adding "This is an extremely important day from this point of view and in a practical sense and in symbolic terms."
Drone footage captures opening day of Kerch Strait Bridge pic.twitter.com/cPSFZkuYKm— Ruptly (@Ruptly) May 15, 2018
Putin drove the Russian-made KAMAZ dump truck in a convoy of vehicles across the 19-kilometre [11.8 mile] bridge over the Kerch Strait. Some Russians are calling it "Putin's bridge," designed to link Crimea into Russia's transport network. -CBC
Putin, dressed in blue jeans, was met by cheering workers on the Crimean side who he told "At last, thanks to your talent, this project, this miracle, has happened."
The Kerch Strait is a notoriously difficult place to build, with undersea mud volcanoes and seismic activity. pic.twitter.com/8X02gWSnpX— RFE/RL (@RFERL) May 15, 2018
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko slammed Putin's actions from Kiev.
"The illegal construction of the Kerch bridge is the latest evidence of the Kremlin's disregard for international law," Poroshenko said, adding "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."
Meanwhile, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert says the United States condemns the construction and partial opening of the bridge, which it says was done "without the permission of the government of #Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine."
The United States condemns #Russia’s construction and partial opening of the Kerch Strait Bridge between Russia and occupied #Crimea, which was done without the permission of the government of #Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine. https://t.co/YjR4nserzN— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) May 15, 2018
The United States condemns Russia’s construction and partial opening of the Kerch Strait Bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea, which was done without the permission of the government of Ukraine. Crimea is part of Ukraine. Russia’s construction of the bridge serves as a reminder of Russia’s ongoing willingness to flout international law.
The bridge represents not only an attempt by Russia to solidify its unlawful seizure and its occupation of Crimea, but also impedes navigation by limiting the size of ships that can transit the Kerch Strait, the only path to reach Ukraine’s territorial waters in the Sea of Azov. We call on Russia not to impede this shipping. -US Department of State
The bridge also drew criticism from Europe, after the French foreign ministry said "France condemns the construction by Russia of the Kerch Bridge, which deprives Ukraine of full access and the use of its internationally recognized territorial waters." Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the European External Action Service said on Tuesday that the bridge was "another violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
"The European Union continues to condemn the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia and will not recognize this violation of international law," the spokesperson said.
Crimea broke away from Ukraine following a bloody US-sponsored coup, when in a March 2014 Crimean referendum 95% of participating voters were in favor of secession of the ethnically Russian region. Ukrainian officials disputed the vote, with then-acting President Oleksander Turchinov stating that "The authorities in Crimea are totally illegitimate, both the parliament and the government."
The State Department-backed fiasco led to the Obama administration imposing harsh sanctions on the Russian Federation, after Obama told Putin during a phone call that "Russia's actions were in violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Putin pushed back, likening Crimea's self-determined referendum to Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia in 2008.
"Regarding the March 16 referendum in Crimea, Mr Putin said that the decision to hold the referendum was in line with international law and the U.N. Charter, and was also in line with the precedent set by Kosovo," the Kremlin said.
While the reaction on Twitter was mostly tepid, there were a few tweets of support for the bridge: