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£3bn bridge linking Russia to Crimea ordered as annexation fears mount

4 March 2013

Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister of Russia, yesterday signed an order to begin work on a bridge linking the Caucasus with the Crimea. The move is being seen as part of the Kremlin’s drive to tighten its control over the peninsula in response to the ousting of Viktor Yanukovich, the former president of the Ukraine, by pro-Western demonstrators.

The bridge would cross the 4.5km Kerch Straits and link Russia’s Taman peninsula with the eastern Crimea. Medvedev told the deputies in his Cabinet that he had commissioned a subsidiary of state-owned contractor Avtodor to implement the project.

According to transcripts of the meeting, he said: “The creation of a reliable and cheap transport link between the Crimea and the Krasnodar region is in the interests of both countries in terms of developing trade and joint investment projects.”

He added that he wanted to “shift this work into the practical realm, regardless of the political situation”. The estimate cost of the project is somewhere above $3bn.

Plans for a Kerch bridge have been under discussion between Russia and the Ukraine for the past 10 years. The talks were halted after the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 brought the anti-Moscow regime of Viktor Yushchenko to power, and began again in 2010 when the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych became president. In December, the two countries signed a series of agreements, one of which was to construct the bridge.

Crimea, left, and Russia are separated by the narrow Kerch Straight (Wikimedia Commons)

According to The Moscow Times, Medvedev expects the deals to be honoured despite the breakdown in relations between Moscow and Kiev in recent days.

In February, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov ordered the Transportation Ministry to begin negotiations with Ukraine on fixing a start date for the work and commissioned Avtodor, which is also known as Russian Highways, to conduct a feasibility study.

In engineering terms, the bridge presents particular challenges owing to the frequent seismic activity in the area and the freezing of the Black and Azov seas, which are separated by the Kerch Straits. The Crimea’s Council of Ministers have been considering several project variants.

These include a road-only bridge and a road-rail link which could come with optional gas pipeline and high-voltage electricity cable.

The link between Russian and the Crimea has added suspicions that Russian is aiming at the annexation of the peninsula. It was given to the Ukraine in 1954 by the newly installed regime of Nikita Khrushchev but, according to the BBC, most of the population are Russian and Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based at Sevastopol, where much of the population have Russian passports.

The Kerch ferry service presently moves 1.2m people between Russia and the Crimea (Wikimedia Commons)

A land link would link Crimea’s economy more closely with Russia’s. The bridge announcement is the latest in a series of measures aimed at such integration.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said yesterday the Crimean government was running a 35bn rouble ($1bn) deficit and that Russia would develop a plan of financial aid for the region by the evening.

Before the present turmoil, The Moscow Times reported that the Russian state development bank VEB was considering financing the preparatory work on the bridge.

The newspaper reported that the Ukrainian government hoped the bridge would boost the economy of the city of Kerch, an important industrial and tourist centre. In 2012, Kerch Ferries transported 1.2m passengers between the Crimean port and the Russian port of Kavkaz, while Russian company Anrusstrans carried 590,500 tons of goods between the two ports in 2011.