MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin triumphantly stood at the front of the first train car to cross the controversial Crimean Bridge on Monday, a symbolic trip across the Kerch Strait more than five years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Russia’s seizure of the Black Sea peninsula in 2014 is not recognized by the United States, the European Union and much of the international community. But the new rail route further cements Russia’s hold over the territory, linking it to St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Putin boarded the train in the Crimean city of Kerch and disembarked in Taman, in Russia’s Krasnador region, riding in the company of the engineers who worked on the bridge, the longest in Russia and Europe at 19 kilometers (nearly 12 miles). While on the train, Putin commented that it was a smoother ride than in an automobile.
“Such infrastructure facilities as this tremendous bridge will influence the entire economy,” Putin told a crowd of construction workers.
“You have shown that we can carry out such large-scale projects using our own technological base,” Putin said in the ceremony broadcast live on state-run television. “Without exaggeration, this gives almost everyone confidence that we will be able to implement such projects in the future.”
Putin took part in a similar ceremony on the bridge last year, when a segment of it was opened for vehicles to cross. He got behind the wheel of an orange truck and drove it the full length of the bridge.
Putin said Monday that the new rail route will carry about 14 million passengers and 13 million tons of cargo next year. Russia can better economically integrate the peninsula now that it is no longer isolated from the mainland. But construction of the bridge cost $3.7 billion and prompted Western sanctions on the firms associated with it.
That included contractor companies owned by oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s longtime friend and already the subject of U.S. sanctions. He stood beside Putin in the train Monday.
The first passenger train left St. Petersburg at 2 p.m. Monday, and, through a video link, Putin wished it “Safe journey!” It is expected to complete the 2,741-kilometer (1,703-mile) journey to Sevastopol, the largest city on the Crimean Peninsula and a Black Sea port, on Dec. 25 at 9:25 a.m. A train ticket from St. Petersburg to Sevastopol costs 3,500 rubles, or about $56.
The train from Moscow to Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, is scheduled to depart on Dec. 24 and cover 2,009 kilometers (1,248 miles) in 33 hours.
Ukraine maintains that it wants the peninsula back, a nonstarter for Moscow. Prospects for that look even bleaker after the subject of Crimea did not even come up in the first face-to-face meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this month in Paris, at a summit aimed at resolving the countries’ conflict in eastern Ukraine.
But there seemed to be some thaw in relations over the weekend, with Russia and Ukraine agreeing to a new five-year gas transit deal, which calls for Kyiv to receive a $2.9 billion settlement.