Ukraine launches probe into Kerch rail bridge
Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the driver’s cabin and sounded the horn of the first official train to cross the Kerch railway bridge that links the Crimea to southern Russia, bringing criticism from Ukraine and the European Union.
Putin, who marks 20 years in power this month, said millions of cars had already crossed the bridge and the rail link “was a big deal as well” that would enable around 14 million passengers and 13 million tonnes of freight to cross to the peninsula in 2020.
The US and EU consider the Kerch bridge a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and have imposed sanctions on companies involved in its construction.
Putin (pictured) drank tea with rail engineers on the US$3.6-billion project, which faces questions about whether it is structurally sound enough to cope with its sandy foundations and the Black Sea currents.
Until the Kerch bridge was built, Russia had to rely on sea and air travel to supply Crimea, which it invaded in February 2014 before annexing it through a referendum rejected by the UN as invalid.
The 19km road and rail bridge opened to cars in May last year after Putin drove a truck at the inauguration ceremony.
The 2,500km train route will link St Petersburg and Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea.
Putin’s close ally, construction billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, won the contract to build the bridge. He faces international sanctions and sold off the company in November. The Kerch structure is the longest European bridge, surpassing the Vasco de Gama bridge in Portugal.
European Union spokesman Peter Stano said the Kerch bridge was “a continuation of forced integration of illegally annexed Crimea” and limited free passage for shipping heading to Ukraine’s ports in the Azov Sea.
The EU has banned imports of non-Ukrainian goods from Crimea or Sevastopol and outlawed European investment. European cruise ships are not allowed to dock in Crimea unless in an emergency.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office for Crimea said on Facebook that the event was “a gross breach by the Russian side of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
The bridge and Putin’s grandstanding showed “disregard by the Kremlin of the universally recognised principles and norms of international law”, the office’s statement said.
Ukraine has launched a criminal investigation with its Prosecutor-General’s Office saying it had “opened a criminal case in relation to the illegal crossing of Ukraine’s state border” by the train.
Russia’s Grand Service Express said it planned to launch eight routes to Crimea in May, according to Kremlin mouthpiece Tass, with routes to Arctic Murmansk, the Urals city of Yekaterinburg and the southern mountain resort of Kislovodsk being considered.
Ukraine has also condemned the bridge’s low clearance, which has hindered Ukrainian shipping.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture credit: Kremlin