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: "TheÂ creation ofÂ a reliable andÂ cheap transport link between the Crimea andÂ the Krasnodar region is inÂ the interests ofÂ both countries inÂ terms ofÂ developing trade andÂ 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 aÂ series of agreements, one ofÂ 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 theÂ deals toÂ be honoured despite the breakdown in relations between Moscow and Kiev in recent days.
InÂ February, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov ordered theÂ Transportation Ministry toÂ begin negotiations with Ukraine on fixing a start date for the work andÂ commissioned Avtodor, which is also known as Russian Highways, toÂ conduct aÂ 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 consideringÂ 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 theÂ preparatory work on the bridge.
The newspaper reported that the Ukrainian government hoped the bridge would boost the economy of the city of Kerch, anÂ important industrial andÂ tourist centre. InÂ 2012, Kerch Ferries transported 1.2m passengers between theÂ Crimean port andÂ the Russian port ofÂ Kavkaz, while Russian company Anrusstrans carried 590,500 tons ofÂ goods between theÂ two ports inÂ 2011.